December 18, 2009
Technology Solution Delivery

Process or No Process?

When it comes to predicting the desired outcome of a major initiative, the answer to the following question is easy isn’t it? Process or No Process?

Process of course! Right? So why do people complain about processes, and even more so when those processes are strictly enforced? We’ve all been in the situation where a process requires us to perform tasks that don’t seemingly impact the success or failure of a project. Even worse, sometimes these required tasks can delay a project and do not directly contribute to the project’s success or even add value to the final product as defined by the stakeholders. For instance, if I’ve created a scope and a high level business requirements document, is there value in creating a traceability matrix? If during detailed design I discover functionality that was not documented previously, does it benefit the project if I go back and update the scope and the high level business requirements?

It is a common and well established business practice to study highly successful teams in order to understand what it is that makes them successful. These studies often result in frameworks that industries adopt in order to reduce variability, reduce cost, increase the ability to forecast, and generally increase the chances of a successful project. The thought process behind this practice is that if you adopt the habits of highly successful teams, there is an increased likelihood that your team will also be successful. This is a reasonable assumption as the various imitators of Ford’s assembly line or the fast food restaurants that have adopted numerous processes that McDonalds’ created and perfected can attest. Have you noticed that once you reach the counter at a McDonald’s anywhere in the world, it takes approximately the same amount of time for your food to be delivered to you? Have you ever stopped to think that this is because every aspect of the process from well before your Big Mac was ordered to the time it was delivered to you has been clearly defined, repeated and improved over time to make the most cost-effective, efficient and repeatable process possible? And once the process is defined it is taught and repeated in every McDonald’s in every corner of the globe. This unparalleled standardization is why the Big Mac is often used as a proxy for currency exchange rates.

Now if you believe the assertion that adopting habits of the successful will lead you to success, then you should agree that it implies that people are interchangeable if you have a well defined process. Right? Of course not. You need people who can understand and execute these processes, and who have the skills required to successfully complete the tasks required of them. But this begs the question, if you need intelligent qualified people, is process still necessary? After all, the highly successful teams from which processes were once derived were successful without pre-established processes.

So let me ask again. Process or No Process? More specifically, process with moderately intelligent and qualified people, or no process with highly intelligent and qualified people? An argument can be made on either side, but I still say process. Here is why. Successful teams are not successful out of the gate. They develop a process over time to guarantee success and continuously improve their processes. The development of processes is not always a conscious decision, but more often than not, truly successful teams define processes whether they are aware of it or not. The best example I can think of to illustrate this point is Walmart. In 1962 Sam Walton opened the first Walmart store and at some point he made the conscious decision that his competitive advantage would come in the form of sales volume as opposed to sales margin. Over the years, in order to continually provide the lowest prices, Walmart continuously integrated the latest technology and placed unparalleled demand on its suppliers. Their continued innovation and ability to influence/bully their suppliers makes Walmart’s supply chain one of the most effective and efficient processes in the world. Unlike Walmart, most companies/projects do not possess the time and/or resources necessary to let processes develop organically and there is no guarantee that the highly qualified intelligent people will transition into a successful process-oriented team.

But, if process is important and proven to be effective, I ask again, why do people complain so much about processes?

This is where I will slightly complicate the discussion. While I feel that process is important, it is also important to note that process should be a tool used to obtain a goal. Process itself shouldn’t be viewed as the goal. All too often process is confused as critical path, and unnecessary work is forced upon individuals with already full workloads in order to satisfy a defined process. When was the last time you heard leadership say, “I don’t care about the outcome, have we successfully followed the defined process?” Never, I hope. However, within projects and teams there is often the misconception that goals can’t be reached if processes aren’t followed. This is one of the reasons individuals often get frustrated with processes and the added work they create

Processes are not tailor made, they are normally created to address the common issues of their domain in a one size fits all manner, rarely taking into account the ambiguity that occurs in most projects. The problem with this approach is that vanilla processes are often implemented on intricate projects with a substantial number of moving parts. This is where successful Project and Program Managers should earn their pay, by making the key decisions that give a project the best chance to meet their stated goals, whether this means periodically straying away from a defined process or sticking to the process as is.

One of the ways you can differentiate your company, team, etc. to gain a competitive advantage is to clearly define and understand the parameters of your projects; define and communicate the goals and success criteria of a project; select the processes that best fit your project; and most importantly continually allow your processes and team to evolve. By taking these steps, you will generally execute faster, cheaper and more frequently reach your stated goals, especially if you have highly intelligent qualified people.

Would you agree?

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