What is a Process?

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For years my partners and I at the Performance Design Lab have defined a business process as “a sequence of steps or tasks that produce a valued output”, or words to that effect.  Every definition of process I have seen in the books and articles written by others use pretty much the same verbiage.  Nothing wrong with the definition - it does describe what a process consists of - but it does nothing to indicate some of the key principles of process design, nor does it do more than hint at why processes are so important (i.e., “valued output”).

So we have come to modify our definition, to provide our clients with a definition that has more meaning, more punch, more insight into the nature and significance of business processes.  First, here is the definition, and then some explanation about why we have written it this way:A process is an artifice or construct for organizing work so that it can be:

  • Performed effectively and efficiently;
  • Managed effectively;
  • Offers the potential for competitive advantage.

A process is an artifice or construct…A process is a mental model, a conceptual tool for thinking about how work is or should be performed, for designing or improving work.  But a process is not real or tangible, like a table or a car. Thinking about a process as if it is real can lead to serious problems - for example, spending a lot of time creating highly detailed process maps in a vain attempt to capture “the real process.”  The truth is, no matter how detailed a map might be, the real process is always a little more complex, and always changing.  So while process maps are a valuable tool for representing a process, they are not the work itself.

…for organizing work

Processes, and process thinking, are all about the work that must be done in an organization, and work must be deliberately designed and organized.  The concept of “process” is the best notion we have ever seen for doing the organizing of work. What is not as helpful is to think of work as “organic” or that processes are part of an “ecosystem”.  These increasingly popular labels for processes and processing systems are flawed because they imply that processes will somehow naturally grow in place and be effective.  But on the contrary, processes allowed to “grow organically” in real organizations are a mess; processes must be deliberately and carefully designed.

…so that it can be performed effectively and efficientlySeveral principles are imbedded in this line: 

  • Processes should be designed from the viewpoint of the performer who must execute it.
  • Process design is often a challenging balancing act between effectiveness (does the process produce the desired outputs) and efficiency (with minimal waste), but an optimized process achieves both.
  • Processes should be designed that they can be performed—the design is not so idealistic or so complex that a reasonably competent person could fail to execute the process as designed.

… so that it can be managed effectively

This is probably the most important element of this definition, for a couple of reasons:

We knew from long experience that many business processes are overly complicated or inferior not because of their design or because performers did their work poorly, but because of the deficient management processes that sit on top of the work processes.  Delays and complexities caused by reviews, oversight, controls, and management interference are sometimes the only thing wrong with a given process. So we think any process design or improvement work should address the management system related to the process in question.

It is an uncommon notion that when creating or improving a process, you should examine the design from the standpoint of how it ought to be managed, but certainly management of the process is as important as execution. Consider a process whose performers are scattered across the globe, in different time zones and in different working conditions, with some of the work performed internally and some of it outsourced.  How one can plan, guide and monitor the performance of such a complex process is a major undertaking, and ultimately performance will rest as much with effective process management as with process execution.

…offers the potential for competitive advantage

Some processes (think of product development for a technology company) are so important they are integral to the strategic intent of a company, and need to be designed and managed as a strategic activity. Other processes can be designed to provide competitive advantage, even if only temporarily, by enabling a company to offer products or services that in some way (faster, better, cheaper) is better than the competition’s offering.

So there is our updated definition - one we think is more complete and helpful to anyone interested in process work, whether designing or improving or convincing others that processes are important. The key ideas are that (1) processes are a mental construct, (2) process are all about the work, (3) process design should make work as effective and efficient as possible, (4) process management is as important as process execution, and (5) processes are strategic.

    Alan Ramias is a Partner of the Performance Design Lab ( PDL). As a member of the team that founded Motorola University, he was the first person to introduce Geary Rummler’s pioneering concepts in process improvement and management to business units within Motorola, which led to several groundbreaking projects that contributed to Motorola’s winning of the first Malcolm Baldrige Award in 1988. Joining The Rummler-Brache Group in 1991, Alan led major successful performance improvement engagements within Fortune 500 companies, then became a partner and Managing Director of Consulting Services. Upon leaving RBG, Alan founded his own consulting company, where he continued to practice in the field of performance consulting, before joining PDL.

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