Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Process Design Blues

Everyone needs a hobby and mine is playing blues guitar. I may not be very good at it, but I'm not ready to sell my soul at the crossroads just yet. What I find fascinating about the blues is how such a simple musical structure becomes a portal into an infinite variety of musical improvisation and creativity. From a basic chord progression of 12 simple bars, the opportunity to innovate is literally limitless. Strangely enough, playing the blues is a great opportunity to think differently about business process.

Having designed many business processes, I have discovered great process design is lot like the blues musical structure: you need to leave lots of room for improvisation within a tightly structured and easy-to-understand framework. Good process design optimizes an algorithm for getting things done, but great process design builds in room to handle inevitable change. Great process design empowers process users to make independent decisions within the framework of the process. Great processes give users the room to deal with the variability of real life while simultaneously enforcing tight controls and high expectations around the key milestones in the process.

The concept of using a loose/tight process design makes some folks uncomfortable. Traditional thinking dictates highly structured and specific steps with no room for independent thought. And that is exactly where traditional process thinking fails - not leaving any room for autonomous and liberated thought. If you want processes to be agile and adaptive to change you need to leave room for human intelligence and creativity to engage. But business processes are not like Grade 2 art class. You need to be very disciplined at the key milestones. Each key milestone in the process needs to be measurable and comparable. Exceptional rigour around defining these process checkpoints ensures the process is executed appropriately. Installing metrics for all milestones ensures managerial control during process execution.

These metrics also enable process improvements over time as the process is executed repeatedly. You need to experiment continually with improvements to the process and measure the results. Measuring the change helps you understand the effect of the change. By comparing multiple executions of the process over time you begin to identify new and better ways of running the process. If you can't measure it, you can't improve it.

As a manager you need to carefully weigh your own engagement in the process. In between these highly controlled and evaluated milestones, you need to empower your staff. Leave the decision-making between milestones up to the discretion of your staff. They should be given your absolute trust to make the right decisions between milestones. After all, you did hire good people didn't you? So give them the opportunity to shine. If you are not comfortable with the room to maneuver you have given them between milestones then you need to re-think the process design. Are there other milestones you need to build into your process? Remember not to overdo it, or the milestones become millstones and the whole process slows down and looses it flexibility and agility. Finally, remember not to abdicate your responsibility to monitor the process for performance variations. If the variations are too extreme, then you need to get engaged.

As an example of this process design philosophy, let's examine a key strategic process for any organization - the project management process. You must be absolutely tight around several key milestones. The first is the project charter. It has one simple objective: define, in certain and quantifiable terms, why you want to do the project. The act of requiring this document as a milestone demands extensive analysis, collaboration, and consensus building before the document is submitted for approval. As a process owner, you do not need to manage the analysis work, but you absolutely must assess the results of the analysis and use the project charter to make the crucial go or no-go decision.

The next milestone is the Project Plan. This document is the contract between the project team and the sponsor. As a contract, it articulates the specific scope, budget, timeline, resources, and risks of the project. Once again, the process owner does not need to engage in the detailed analysis and development work. The project staff members are more than capable of building the components such as a work breakdown structure. However, this contract document is of mission-critical importance to the project sponsors. As a project process owner your role is to ensure the results of the analysis stand-up to significant, extensive, and careful scrutiny. The Project Plan milestone sets the stage for the most expensive stage of the project, so you want to use the milestone to be absolutely positive the project is ready to move to the next stage.

Once you have an approved plan, the execution begins. A well-written project plan has specific execution milestones defined. These milestones report on completion of activities according to scope, budget, and timeline of the plan with a change control mechanism. Once again, the project sponsor and project owner need to be actively informed and engaged in reviewing these execution milestones. If milestones are meeting promises (or appropriate change requests are approved), then the project manager and her/his team are perfectly capable of implementing the work between milestones without interference. However, if the project misses milestones, then the process owner and sponsor must engage in the project's detail work.

Assuming everything goes well the final milestone is the Project Closure. At this milestone you decide if you did what you said you would do. Are all the expected project products and services completed to a satisfactory quality level? Will the organization reap the benefits promised in the project charter? The sponsor and process owner review the original project charter to determine if the project delivered on the promises made. This milestone is used to determine if the project is truly finished. These two leaders do not need to be involved in the final development work for the product or service, but they do need to ensure it is are completed properly, hence the existence of a milestone at this point in the process.

Throughout this project management process there are specific and explicit expectations in each of the milestones, and liberal room to empower project managers to use their judgment and make decisions throughout the process. The worst project management methodology I have ever seen consisted of 14 binders, each 2" thick. They were never opened and never used. Conversely, the best project management methodology I've ever seen was a single 1" binder that was well thumbed with lots of coffee stains. It was a process that left lots of room for individual creativity within a tight context of specific milestone-based deliverables.

I can always tell when I hear great blues. The old familiar structure is always there, yet the great artists make every blues song sound unique, inspiring, and wonderful. Just like great blues music, great processes can lead to business innovation and creativity. But don't let them run amuck or you will get 20-minute guitar solos that bore your audience to tears.


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