As an organization grows it must develop processes to deal with the work that needs to be done. Those processes are either created internally or brought in from the outside. While most organizations will have some processes from both sources, they will usually lean toward one source or another. When their value to the consumer is based on having a unique product, organizations tend to use generic processes because their product is what differentiates them in the marketplace. When they offer a product that has become a commodity or is readily available from other vendors they tend to use custom processes in order to differentiate themselves to customers.
Progressive Insurance is a good example of a company that is using custom processes while a Rogers and Holland Jewelry is an example of a company that uses generic processes. Progressive works hard to create processes that add value. Their basic product is available from numerous other sources and there is very little differentiation. However their process of sending adjustors to the wreck site with the ability to issue a check to their client on the spot is what allows them to be much more efficient than their competitors. Their processes are what allow them to have lower prices in an industry where everyone offers an identical product.
Rogers and Holland on the other hand uses pretty much the same processes as the rest of their competitors. They differentiate themselves by their product not their process. The processes that support a purchase from Rogers and Holland are not significantly different than those at Zales or any other jewelry store. The product is what varies.
Processes in Product based Companies
In a product based company the processes are secondary. These companies generally look for processes that can be imported into the organization. Sometimes this is through copying best practices from similar organizations. Often times the processes are brought in as part of a software package. These companies look for a solution to a problem and then just model their process to fit the technology.
This is not a bad solution. It allows organizations to focus on their product and just use standard processes that are used by everyone using the same software. It is dangerous when they think that they are creating best practice processes when they are actually just trying to implement the standard way of doing things used by everyone else in the industry.
Creating Value through Processes
If an organization is going to create value through their custom processes, they need to build a strong foundation. First they need a strong system for identifying, describing and reworking processes. This has to be a priority that permeates the entire organization. Managers and directors must focus on this as the primary roles of their job. ISO 9000 and similar programs are good baselines to measure this type of commitment to being process focused.
Second they need a strong technology infrastructure to enable and enforce the processes. This foundation must be capable of evolving over time to support changing processes. If processes must be redesigned significantly in order to fit the technology, the organization will be driven by the constraints of their tools. The technology must be flexible enough to model the best practices that come out of the process design work. The technology must provide a common platform so processes can be linked together. Any properly managed organization can be viewed as one large process made up of many sub processes. If the technology doesn’t allow the sub-processes to communicate with each other it becomes a limiting factor.
The Role of Technology in a Process Organization
It is important to realize that technology is merely a tool in a process based organization. Most well designed processes can work very well in an environment where the technology is merely file cabinets and well conceived cross indexes. While modern technology can help achieve efficiencies far beyond what is capable in the paper world, it must be seen as secondary to the actual process creation and analysis.
The 1990s saw a huge investment in technology for many companies. Those that simply invested in technology have lost a tremendous amount of value and many of them went out of business. The companies that invested in creating high quality processes and used technology as a mechanism to deploy and run those processes have fared much better. Amazon.com is an example of a company that focused extremely well on their processes. In their early days when their competitors were focused on building flashy websites, they were focusing on creating automated procedures for ordering books from publishers. Jeff Bezos even created a custom process for fabricating an inexpensive desk from 4 by 4’s and a blank door. These “door desks” are standard issue for every employee at the company even though the process has been slightly modified–Jeff doesn’t personally make every desk now. Amazon invests a huge amount in technology but only to support their well crafted processes.
Process must come first. Technology is only productive if it is enabling a well defined process. Technology by itself can give people an illusion of efficiency and productivity by allowing work to be done faster. However doing unproductive things very quickly is no more efficient than doing them slowly. Going in circles accomplishes the same thing on a tricycle as it does in a supersonic jet.
Making a Commitment to Process
When an organization determines that it’s competitive advantage comes from it’s processes the following things need to happen:
- Someone in the organization needs to be given the responsibility for overseeing the definition of processes.
- The organization must change their rewards and job descriptions to make process creation an important part of each manager’s job.
- Processes must be created, approved, and then followed. If there are going to be exceptions they must be built into the process itself.
- All processes need to be re-evaluated on a regular basis to make sure they are still up to date.
Here are examples of the types of things that should be well defined processes:
- The procedure for getting physical and electronic access to the organization. The process would need to establish the criteria for access, what approval is needed, turn around time, and when access will be reviewed or eliminated automatically.
- The process for hiring, acclimating, and reviewing a new employee.
- Processes for dealing with customers, handling complaints, preventing attrition, and making contact with new customers.
- Processes for starting a new product or a new type of service.
- Processes for employees leaving the organization (exit interview, returning keys, revoking electronic access, reassigning responsibilities).
- Processes for focus groups and specialized teams (standard deliverables, reporting structure, and schedule, etc.).
What follows is a sample process for creating and deleting user accounts. Notice that this process defines a way for the accounts to be created as well as a way for them to be deleted. This process is a little oversimplified, but it gives a general overview of the types of things that processes need to contain. Notice that the process establishes a period of time where important information can be retrieved from the deactivated users account. It also provides a way to remove accounts that are no longer used so the licenses and storage space for the account can be reclaimed. Also notice that that process can be implemented on paper without building any software.
Once there is a clear process, technology can be used to automate the process. In the example shown, software can be written to allow a supervisor to fill out a request which is then approved online by HR. Submitting the form can automatically create the account and notifies the supervisor of a training appointment. It can also keep track of how long it has been since the last log on and deactivate accounts as necessary. It can contain forms that would allow HR to request removal of an account and supervisors to request reactivation.
It is important to note that none of the technology can be built until there is agreement on the process. If a company tries to implement the technology before agreeing on the process they will end up implementing and re-implementing things as the process is defined. This type of rework can quickly eliminate any productivity gains of the technology in the first place.
When an organization makes a commitment to defining their processes, they are creating an environment with a number of benefits. One of those benefits is that smaller amounts of technology can be used to accomplish more work than before. Well defined processes can be implemented using software. Ad-hoc and informal processes can be implemented as well, but often require software so complex that the upfront investment in time and resources outweigh any advantages.
Another benefit is the fact that technology can be used to build an organizational wide foundation making it easy to automate parts of processes and tie the processes together to further automate things. For example, the account creation process could be hooked into a hiring process, so adding a new employee automatically creates their user account.
As previously stated most processes will function just fine using paper based forms and filing cabinets. Technology can help reduce the paper and eliminate the time that would normally be spent moving paper back and forth for approvals and review. Decision processes that can be broken down into a set of rules can be handled automatically. Decisions that require human input can be streamlined, so the person who needs to make the decision is simply emailed a statement of the problem with a list of possible decisions as hyperlinks. When the user makes a decision by clicking on the appropriate link, the system automatically records it and proceeds with the rest of the process.
In order to use technology in the most effective manner, process based organizations need a consolidated data repository and a technology platform to implement their process automation. The data repository helps to insure that every process can get access to the organization’s knowledge in order to make decisions or present information. It consists of one or a few databases. A shared technology platform insures that the work that goes into automating one process can be built on to create the next process. If properly structured and managed it will become easier and easier to automate processes as time goes on because each one will be built on a foundation that has been enriched by the tools created to support previously automated processes.
Implementing Technology Enabled Processes
- Commit to creating processes. There must be a commitment to becoming a process based organization. It should be done with a full understanding of what needs to be accomplished and how it will benefit the organization. It can’t be just a “good idea”. It must be a complete change in the way the organization defines it’s work.
- Define the processes. Each department must define how they do their work. They must collaborate on the points where processes traverse departments in order to define the information and work flow that occurs. The processes should be defined in a way that makes use of paper or email. The processes must work without requiring automation up front even if it means they are less efficient. It is much less expensive to change a process that exists on paper than to change one that has been encoded into software. Starting with the processes on paper also helps keep things less abstract so managers better understand what they are creating.
- Approve the processes. Management must approve the processes and agree with them. If their are discrepancies between how a department is defining their work and how management wants their work defined, it should be handled at this stage. Management must sign off on each process approving it.
- Regularly check the processes. There must be some sort of regular audit to make sure that work is actually being done according to the defined process.
- Define a general data model. Once the processes are defined, then work can start on creating a technology foundation. The foundation is created by looking at all the processes as a whole and finding the common data elements that they will all share.
- Create a priority list. Some processes provide greater efficiency gains than others. The priority list should rank the processes that when automated it will provide the greatest increase in productivity.
- Automate the first process. This is likely to be a learning experience, so it should not be rushed. It also shouldn’t be considered complete just because it works. It must also be well designed in a way that is flexible, scalable, and reusable. It will set the pattern and foundation for the rest of the work.
- Continue with the other processes. The priority list should be re-evaluated and updated to make sure that any changes to the organization are reflected in the choice of the next process to automate.
This flowchart shows the process of creating and automating processes in an organization. Notice that the technology isn’t implemented until all of the processes have been defined. The processes must be defined in a way that allows them to work without having custom software. This means that they must be workable using paper forms, filing cabinets, word-processor documents and spreadsheets.
Organizations that provide value through their processes can create a huge competitive advantage by defining and automating their way of doing work. By clearly defining the best way to do each piece of work an organization can achieve a consistent high level of quality. By automating parts of the overall organizational process, the organization can focus human resources on the areas where they add value.