The Benefit of Cultivating a Process Perspective

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For Six Sigma, Lean, Reengineering and other process practitioners, it is in our nature to adopt what I label a process perspective. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we think in process terms. Every activity is a series of steps and we cannot help but introduce improvements with the passage of time. This pattern of behavior often transcends our work life… and enters into our personal life – sometimes to the chagrin of our family members.

As an example, one of the roles I play in our household is pulling my kids out of their bed in the morning and attempting to give them some semblance of a nutritional breakfast before they head off to school. Over time, I have fallen into a pattern – a morning process with specific outcomes. My goal is happy energized kids, ready for school on time, and as many extra minutes of sleep as I can squeeze in. As any parent knows, actually getting a child out of bed and to the breakfast table is not always a simple exercise – and there is variability to the experience. One kid will jump up immediately and be at the breakfast table demanding food while the other requires an act of war to get them moving. Over time, my process evolved to address these challenges. To accommodate the quick riser, I prepared a portion of the breakfast before climbing the steps to their room. The remainder of their breakfast was prepared after both kids were up and moving. And it goes without saying that I have gradually perfected the morning routine to allow me a few extra moments after the snooze button has already been popped three or so times.

As process practitioners, many of you arguably suffer from a similar affliction. We see process opportunities everywhere. And often this makes us operate in a manner unique to the cultures in which we operate. Some of our colleagues are not bothered by disorder and inefficiency. Not us! As a business consultant, owning this process perspective means that I use basic process tools to introduce order where chaos reigns. Although business process management is most commonly linked to repetitive activities, I find the mindset to be equally advantageous when the need is simply to inject clarity into an issue or opportunity – to provide a common understanding of a situation. At a base level, processes are but a tool to describe work to be performed including how we use resources to achieve an end goal. Translating any endeavor into process terms yields a foundational construct that can be the basis for further discussion and ideation.

One of my current clients was toying with the idea of entering into a very significant business partnership. The aim was to simplify their business model and allow them to focus on the segment of the value chain were they excelled. Such a partnership possessed the potential to be a game changer in the industry. For several months, individuals from both companies met and traded ideas. While some progress was made, the road to formalizing and implementing an operational agreement was not proceeding. To begin with, the extent of the operational change entailed the involvement of individuals up and down the organizational chart on both sides. Not surprisingly, communication lines were blurry. The end state was poorly defined. While the teams worked on components of the end solution, no one really knew how all the pieces needed to come together. Enthusiasm was rapidly diminishing and several key players were opening questioning if it made sense to continue. Making it work appeared beyond the capacity of the disparate teams. At exactly this point, I was asked to get involved.

As might be expected, I viewed the relationship as a process - a process spanning the two organizations where the different teams were collectively responsible for producing valuable outputs. After conferring with team members on both sides, I scripted out how the overall flow of work efforts and what the outputs would be at each point in the process. While there were points of disagreement, these outstanding questions were the fuel for even more detailed discussions of the end state. From a high level, the script I documented read something like the following operational partnership.

International Genetics Incorporated (InGen) & Ephesus Mining Partnership Agreement

  • Ephesus Mining will identify high potential sites to obtain amber and negotiate for the rights to extract the amber for further processing
    • Ephesus Mining will maintain a site list and will routinely review the list with InGen
    • Ephesus Mining will obtain the right to extract the amber from the landowner after receiving approval from a designated representative of InGen
    • Ephesus Mining will manage the extraction of amber containing trace amounts of blood from prehistoric animals
      • Ephesus Mining will extract amber from the site while complying with all the appropriate regulations and owner stipulations
      • Amber will be evaluated onsite by a representative of InGen for trace amounts of prehistoric DNA in mosquitos or other blood sources
      • Amber selected for extraction will be transported to a designated site for processing
      • Ephesus will be compensated based upon the number of amber specimens delivered to InGen
      • InGen will utilize proprietary techniques to extract the blood from the amber and obtain the DNA of prehistoric animals
        • Reports will be maintained of the condition of the blood extracts and their ability to be utilized for cloning
        • InGen and Ephesus Mining will participate in regularly scheduled meetings to review the quality and quantity of blood samples
        • The purpose of these meetings will be to continually refine the identification and extraction processes to increase the quantity and quality provided and to reduce overall costs throughout the supply chain

While at first glance this view of the operational partnership may seem overly simplistic, this base view provided the team members on both sides the necessary clarity. It served to define the intent of the partnership. It highlighted what the teams were working towards, the connection points, and delivered additional detail on their respective roles. In short, it served as the foundational perspective for defining the partnership. After it was reviewed in a joint meeting, one senior manager commented that “Finally we know why we’ve been working towards these last few months. We’d still be firing salvo’s at each other if we didn’t have this view to guide our coordination.

Not to overstate the value of this exercise, this view of the relationship is not the end state by any means. It is simply the beginning of the real design work. It sets a foundation for further discussions on topics including the manner by which performance will be monitored, the creation of specific roles & responsibilities for performers, the identification of technology tools to support the process, and continual improvement mechanisms to refine the operational process over time.

Now a month later, the teams are making significant progress. Sub teams are aggressively digging into the details to further define the joint processes. Resources have been allocated to the partnership. Equally important, the enthusiasm has returned and both organizations have agreed to put the pen to paper and draft a contract to legally cement the relationship.

As process practitioners, we often have a tendency to push for well-defined, measurable processes. While this is undoubtedly a goal for driving efficiency and quality goals in repeated processes, there are significant benefits to reap when using our process skills to simply clarify the manner in which work is performed. Now if only I can get my kids to employ such methods in the care of their room.

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