Process improvement: End ‘process for the sake of process’

Process Improvement

Process improvement is a fairly important topic in any work or future of work discussion, because of this bouncing ball:

At most places you’ve ever worked, there’s probably — hopefully — a certain degree of innovation and original thought. That’s good! (Although not everyone can or will be innovative, and that’s fine too.)

But there’s also no doubt a lot of process, and when it’s done wrong, business process buries results.

So … here’s where we net out.

  • Process is often very important to people.
  • When it’s done right, it drives business success.
  • When it’s done wrong, it washes away productivity in the flood.
  • How can we maximize process improvement?

Let’s consider this more broadly.

Process Improvement V1: The power of simplicity

I’m a big fan of simplicity as a business concept. It feels like the only logical counter to the “OMG I’m so busy everything is causing me to drown!” mentality that embraces most white-collar cubicle corporate jobs as everyone forgets that “busy” isn’t the same thing as “productive” and fails to realize “quantity” isn’t the same thing as “quality.”

What about simplicity as a concept for process improvement, though?

Begin with this video:

It’s tied to this post from Stanford’s Business School and Engineering School working together.

The essential takeaway was:

  • Companies with too many rules tended to “hit a mark” — i.e. release a product — but it tended to be the wrong thing relative to what everyone wanted. Logically, you’d assume the process (too many rules) made it so they weren’t even solving the right problem.
  • Companies with no real rules tended to basically get nothing done — no outcomes or deliverables. That’s not good, although I bet those companies did achieve a whole metric fuck ton of no-ROI deliverables.
  • Companies in the middle — 4 or 5 simple rules — tended to achieve the most.

See how this could benefit process improvement? If you have too many rules — too much process! — you probably go off-task. If you have no real rules — too little process!! — you don’t hit targets. And if you’re somewhere in the middle, you achieve the most.

This is basically the Goldilocks theory of process improvement right here. But now we take it up a notch.

Process Improvement V2: Process for the sake of it

Here’s a dirty little secret about most workplaces: even though we run around talking about our commitments and our bonds and friendships and how everyone is catching each other’s back, in reality no one wants to collaborate and most people are broadly unclear what the true priorities of the place are. That’s not just me saying that — there’s actual academic research on those ideas.

The problem with a lack of priority and a focus on individual tasks gets even worse in the process improvement space, because oftentimes what organizations do is forget the actual reason for something happening. Here’s a quick example.

Orgs now love to collect data, because consultants are rushing in and telling them they need to compete on data, Big Data, analytics, etc. So now organizations are buying software and hiring data scientists and scrubbing data and figuring out how to compete! But … they forget this cardinal concept:

Data doesn’t mean anything unless it’s tied to more effective decision-making.

So orgs run around chasing every conceivable data tail they can find, and what happens? Decision-making gets slower. The process overwhelmed the idea, and the idea lost value. Happens all the time.

Now let’s turn back to process improvement.


Here’s the cardinal concept on process:

Process should make business run more effectively.

That’s it. That’s as simple as it is. There’s literally no other reason for any type of process than increased effectiveness (and hopefully money).

And now here comes the real killer: “process for the sake of process.”

Here’s how this works:

  • Organizations do a crappy job of defining purpose for employees (you can easily argue that’s not their job);
  • Employees, though, want to be seen as relevant;
  • As noted above, organizational priority is often unclear;
  • As noted above, people tend to seek relevance in quantity of work and not quality of work;
  • As noted above, process means more than anything to many people at jobs;
  • So now people begin inventing process for the sake of process in order to boost their own standing in an org.

What would process for the sake of process look like?

Let’s say there’s a sales team and a marketing team, OK? And the sales team needs certain documents to sell better — and, ideally, those documents and content resources are coming from marketing.

Normal process or process improvement looks like this:

  • Sales and marketing have a shared system and shared KPIs
  • Marketing sends out weekly updates about new content, how it’s tagged, and what it could be used for (personas)
  • Face-to-face meetings occur 1-2x/week

Process for the sake of process looks like this:

  • Multiple forms and folders, often confusing, based on one person’s head
  • If sales wants to find a specific piece of content for a lead, they need to fill out a specific form and send that to some lady in marketing
  • No meetings or discussions
  • Completely different goals, but everyone gets lambasted when something isn’t in Asana at the exact right moment

Normal process and process improvement is based on the idea of making the business more effective.

Process for the sake of process is based on the idea of making sure everyone seems like they’re working 40 hours and can complain about how busy they are.

There’s a major difference.

Process Improvement V3: Moving away from process for the sake of process

If you really want to have established process improvement ideas in place, here’s what you need to do:

  • Look at how you make money
  • Look at the pain points in your biggest ROI and revenue processes
  • Talk to the people involved in those processes
  • Come up with ideas to fix those pain points
  • Outline those ideas
  • Present them to the involved parties
  • Get feedback
  • Implement the feedback as the new processes
  • Check it for 4 months and see if it’s more effective than the old processes

What you just did in those bullet points is process improvement — that’s finding a bad area that could be a good area (and/or could make you money) and turning it from ‘bad’ to ‘good.’

Process improvement.

We have a tendency, at least in American business, to think of “more” as “better” — see above about quantity of work — so we assume more process means better process, but oftentimes more process just means more hoops to jump through to actually get something done.

That’s not effective. Remember above when we looked at Stanford research about simplicity in rules and process as relates to legitimate business growth and product sales? Yea.

Now think about it this way: let’s say there’s Company A and Company B, right? They both make widgets. They both want to get to market this quarter.

Company A has a process like this:

  • Marketing plan approved in functioning teams
  • Executives vote/adjust
  • Feedback cycle
  • Market rollout and adjustments

Company B looks like this:

  • Product marketing must get approval from CMO lieutenant
  • CMO lieutenant makes changes, kicks back to product marketing
  • Product marketing back to lieutenant
  • Lieutenant over to sales ops
  • Sales ops down to sales reps for feedback
  • Sales reps feedback back to sales ops
  • Now to CSO lieutenant
  • CSO lieutenant back to sales enablement
  • (At this point, the CMO and the CSO aren’t even involved yet.)

Out of those two companies, who do you think is getting to market first? Now listen — first-mover advantage is bullshit, and we all know that. Adam Grant has called that out, as have others. But once both A and B hit market, who do you think can adjust and do process improvement better?

I’ll give you a hint. It’s “A.”

Hierarchy isn’t going anywhere, and we all know that. But there need to be adjustments made around hierarchy, because more and more process to get things vetted doesn’t make your business more effective — it makes your business slower and more plodding.

Process Improvement V4: What would you say?

I’ve never actually worked in BPO or anything. These are just my beliefs and ideas about process improvement based on where I have worked and/or being dragged into 19 layers of process hell at almost every job I’ve ever had.

Had a gig once where everything was in Google Drive folders, right? So the folders were labeled like “Project A” and “Project B” and whatnot. You’d create new documents — spreadsheets, text — in the correct folder, and each folder had access rights to people who needed it. It’s a totally logical, perfect system if you manage it right. All the edits are up-to-date exactly where you need them and expect them to be at all times. What could go wrong?

Like 1,989 things.

People would create their own documents in their Drive and send those around for editing, leaving off key people as access rights. Happened all the time.

People would edit stuff in the wrong folders. Again, all the time.

People would add the wrong people and permissions to each folder. All the time.

This kept happening — and then every week or so, someone would complain and an exec would bellow “Gotta follow the process!”

Right, Senior Leader Sir. But the process is broken as fuck. And there’s no process improvement in sight.

That’s one small example. I’ve seen 722 variations of that at 15 different companies.

What have you seen — and how would you fix it?

Ted Bauer

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