The Process is a Practice.
I apologize for having been incommunicado for a little while. It has been caused by my heavy writing schedule and preparations for the ISIS OpenHouse in Vienna, Austria and Southlake, TX where I was involved in setting up the business strategy and architecture models in Papyrus. I also had to organize the setup of a fifth development lab in Barcelona, Spain. In this post I am gathering thoughts of process experts who retracted from a top-down control approach. They realized that it is the people who execute processes that matter and not the process management methodology.
In 1993 M. Hammer and J. Champy wrote the influential book ‘Reengineering The Corporation’. Their proposals have led to a widespread consideration of how business operations can be improved by ‘reengineering work into processes.’ Analyzing atomic work items would then allow to optimize the flow of the work by reducing unnecessary steps, optimizing each of the steps towards minimum cost, and reducing the wait times between steps. Overall this was meant to improve the quality by means of predictability and to reduce the expense of performing necessary work. As a matter of historic record most reengineering efforts failed to improve quality because they were purely focused on so-called downsizing.
In his 1996 ‘Beyond Reengineering’ M. Hammer had already moved on from the message of the first book. Hammer reconsidered that “in a process-centered organization, there are no convenient handoffs at which to monitor results. Work is a continuum, not a series of discrete pieces and the handoffs are actually inside people’s heads. He demanded that not the supervisor – a.k.a. the flowchart – is in charge but the worker.”
Also BPM expert Tom Davenport had similar second thoughts on Six Sigma in January 2008: “I was never a big fan of Six Sigma. As approaches to business process improvement and management go, it always had some glaring shortcomings. First, there was all the statistical mumbo-jumbo it implied — but seldom delivered on in most companies’ implementations. Second, it didn’t incorporate information technology — arguably the most powerful force available for improving (or screwing up) processes — in any way. Third, it was overly elitist. Instead of relying on Six Sigma expert “black belts” do the process analysis and design, every employee should be a process improver, …”
Hammer did away with fragmenting a business through distinct processes. He portrayed the business as decentralized workgroups each responsible for a particular segment of customer service processes. The workgroup is guided by a process-owner who coaches a group of team players and monitors customer service quality rather than the process. Hammer could have easily substituted process-centered with goal-centered, but his choice is understandable.
An essential aspect of a more collaborative approach of workgroups is how the processes are analyzed and how their quality is assessed and improved. Current proposals focus on a bureaucratic, centralized solution with a process center of excellence, while M. Hammer already proposed that “process quality information must be gathered from everyone in the organization, especially frontline employees, who are best equipped to recognize inadequacies in current operations or significant changes in customer need.” This is very close to the recent concept of empowerment.
Hammer compared the ideal workgroup with a football team. While the coach trains with the team possible plays (processes) he does not step out on the field and controls the game. A player (process owner) called the ‘offense coordinator’ dynamically selects and positions players for each offense. Players all have very different roles like workers in business. Offense coordinators and position coaches draw from their extensive experience to shape the team to dynamically react to any opponent. It is this teamwork between coaches, coordinators and players that we need to achieve in daily business operations. Process management assigns work to user roles and supports these in the current play without restricting their ability to shape the play individually.
While the team is given the freedom to play the game as it sees fit, it still has to follow the rules of the game and pursue the game objectives. The same is true for business. Therefore it is essential to understand that role coordination and coaching does not replace or interfere with the (business) rules that make up the game. Rules and objectives are stable, while coordination and coaching is dynamic. Hammer says that it is the people at the customer front who execute each day who know what works and what not. Executives (coaches) have to make clear what they want to achieve by providing goals and then empower employees (players) to execute. If those workgroups have direct customer contact the feedback from the customer (fans in the stadium) will motivate them to improve quality.
In June 2007, Bloomberg Businessweek wrote in “Six Sigma: So Yesterday?: Austed Home Depot CEO Robert Nardelli was devoted to Six Sigma. … Profitability soared, but worker morale dropped, and so did consumer sentiment. Home Depot dropped from first to worst among major retailers on the American Customer Satisfaction Index in 2005. Now Nardelli’s successor, Frank Blake is dialing back on the Six Sigma.”
It is necessary to concede that a business is what it does, and not what the CEO or organization department wants or what a marketing department describes in a value proposition. How a business does processes is defined by how employees actually perform customer service. A game is defined by what players do and not by strategy or plans. We all know that hardly anything goes according to plan.
Not designing and optimizing processes is a practice, but performing a process is.