I am a user experience designer with experience designing, developing and leading the creation of software products. I am seeking an opportunity to work with a team that is passionate about building great technology products.

Why we need Processes

Off late I have been in a few discussions with people about processes. I am a believer in the importance of a clear articulated process but I often end up having to justify my stand because well processes have been known to kill creativity, increase bureaucracy and in general make people dumb! But I believe that is because of a lack of proper understanding of a process.

So I decided to put together some of my thoughts what a process is and what’s it good for.

So first.. what is a process?

A process is an articulation of how work is done.

What is a process good for?

Well lots of stuff that I can think of…

1.       Sustainability: Without a clearly articulated process, there is a lot more dependence on individuals. And with changes in the team… the work quality suffers and sometimes for things that are not seen as burning issues in the short term, work stops all together. I have seen this happen multiple times with people management initiatives and quality assurance activities which do not result in deliverables to the customer(I work in a service company). These activities die down with a change in management or increase in workload.

2.       Better Work Allocation: Dividing work into distinct steps allows us to understand how complex and/ or business critical each step is. People with different skill sets and experience levels can be deployed accordingly. In my experience as a team member and then a team lead in a software company, I found that once we broke our work into even the basic Requirements, Design, Coding and Testing phases, we were able to match peoples skills better with the work required off them. Some people are just better at talking to the customer and getting out his real needs, some (like me) love design etc. With this distinction in place, we were able to focus our attention to the areas we were good at and/ or enjoyed the most.

3.       Estimation: Breaking work up into distinct steps, especially in large projects allows us to estimate better because we can think at a more granular level. I have seen this work multiple times. The customer/ onsite coordinator asks you to add a certain functionality to an existing application and you say you’ll take 2 weeks to do it and then there is shock, awe and then some bargaining. What helps the most here is to break the work up into pieces… put estimates against each and let him make the call of which piece he wants to forego given the consequences it might have on the deliverable quality.

4.       Quality: Processes come with check-points and reviews. This allows better quality assurance. I do not wish to beat this point in any further.

5.       Automation: Once you break up a process into its constituent parts, lots of times you identify pieces which are just repetitive and simple. These pieces don’t deserve human owners, programs can be written to take care of them. We had a classic case of this in the projects we were executing. Our project itself was automation of certain design processes for an aircraft manufacturer. The output of our programs were 3D models in CATIA. Before we delivered our applications to our clients, to be sure that application functions correctly, we checked the output model whether all the necessary geometries and parameters had been created correctly. Over time we started creating checklists for these outputs. But as the requirements grew so did the checklists and the work of the poor tester, visually checking the parts for errors. This even for our relatively small applications would take 4 person days of boring checks and filling out spreadsheets. Then we struck upon the idea of writing code for it. When we did, we reduced the testing time to 30 mins and reduced the possibility of human errors. The important point here is that once we broke our work down into its constituent parts, we could see room for optimization and automation.

6.       Outsourcing: This continues from point 2… when work is divided into its components, some non business critical parts can be outsourced. And whole industries have been formed because of this. (including mine… long live the processes)

7.       Encouraging the right behavior: In an organizational context, this understanding of the components of work allows the organization to identify ways to encourage the right behavior whether through positive or negative incentives or through cultural changes. Now this is a path that needs to be tread with caution, because incentivizing wrong can lead to more focus on the steps of the process rather than the objectives. I saw multiple examples of this when I was leading a team and was involved in the goal setting discussion of our project team members. When we incentivized creation of reusable components and knowledge artifacts, a lot of the artifacts that we got were unusable because the author focused only on the creation of the artifact and didn’t put much thought into how it could be used and what might be the associated challenges.

8.       Academics: This is one of my favorites. I recently read a paper by MP Ranjan of the National Institute of Design in Ahmadabad, India. To reinvent the design education curriculum for NID, he had first analyzed how a designer works, what is his skill, knowledge and cognitive base. [Pic below] Now I don’t know how this impacted the curriculum at NID but what’s important here and now probably seems obvious is that to define a curriculum to educate students in a particular discipline, it is important to understand how work happens in that discipline to define the skills and knowledge required.

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The Process Traps

1.      Bureaucracy: Not much to say… establishing processes sometimes slows work down because the process becomes a mandate and people at the execution level are not empowered to use their judgment to forego processes and just get the damn work done!

2.      Big Picture: Processes rob a lot of people at the lower levels of the larger view of the work and the organization. So unsurprisingly, they end up focusing more on the steps to be followed rather than the reason behind the steps.

3.      Processes become obsolete: A process is established a point in time based on the knowledge, tools and limitations of the time. After a while these basic premises might change. So its important to always keep questioning the process and revisiting it from time to time.

 

To summarize, processes are just a way to understand and improve our work. It’s important to understand the process in spirit and remember that processes are our slaves not the other way around.

6 thoughts on “Why we need Processes”

  1. That girl from the bus
     ·  Reply

    A well illustrated read. Not rookie-ish either. This is what I wrote. http://conversationswithl.wordpress.com/. Most of it stems from our bus conversations yesterday. Like always, the bus is one of my favorite thinking places!

  2. Mike Fox from Boeing
     ·  Reply

    Ishan: Everything you have written here is spot on.
    I would add the following to your item number 7: If each step in a process is explained carefully then people will understand *why* the process must be followed and this provides a significant incentive for them to comply. No one likes to mindlessly follow a process he doesn’t understand.It is not always easy to capture the reasons for a particular step in a process. Sometimes the reason has been lost or forgotten as previous process owners move to different assignments. Sometimes the reason no longer exists but people continue to mindlessly follow the process and dare not deviate.

    One important reason to formally record process steps is to capture the reasons for the process steps so that future process users will know them. Capturing the reasons for the process steps allows us to avoid your third Process Trap. If people know the original reasons for each step in a process then they will know when a process step (or the entire process) has become obsolete.Creating and documenting processes is a delicate business. On one hand you have the general population of users who are unable or unwilling to think hard about their jobs and capture the sequential steps. On the other hand you have process focals who understand processes but who probably don’t understand all the requirements that the users must satisfy as they do their jobs. Ideally, the process focals should guide the general population into documenting and owning their processes. This is often difficult, like “herding cats,” but it must be undertaken or the process focal will be perceived to be high handed and arrogant and the users will not cooperate.

    It can be fascinating to observe the different personalities of people in an organization for need to document their processes:
    1) Apathetic people who don’t want to document their processes.These are the majority.
    2) Hostile people who don’t want others to understand their carefully hoarded secrets, which will be revealed by the process document. These are mercifully rare but can be frustrating.
    3) Creative, eager people who understand the need for processes and are always willing to invent or re-invent processes.
    4) Process historians. These are the truly knowledgeable people who remember the way thing used to be done and why the process was changed. These people are few and far between and are extremely valuable to the organization.
    5) Process sheriffs. These are people who angrily enforce process documents, usually without any knowledge about the reasons for the process. They have put a lot of effort into learning all the process steps and they are often extremely resistant to change.

    If an organization is to remain agile and successful, it must encourage and reward creative people of types 3 and 4 so that processes will remain dynamic. If this does not happen then processes become obsolete and they become counterproductive.

  3. Pravin
     ·  Reply

    If the argument is between the two nodes of benefits that comes along with the process and disadvantages that comes with following processes, then we need to actually decide the level or depth upto which processes should be defined. Creativity is certainly a desired characteristics of any output from human. However sometimes a series of tasks needs to be repeated in a manner defined by an expert who has analysed them very well and layed down best way to perform them. It brings a repeated higher productivity without really understanding how it is done. Creativity is a by product of genuine interest in something. When somebody follow a process he may not be genuinely interested in doing the task, hence its always better to follow the process. It will atleast bring higher productivity. On the other hand if you also happen to be genuinely interested in the same work, then forget about the predefined process, have your own version creatively, challenge the existing process for betterment. It will certainly make the process better than what it was. We can allow a controlled mixture of pockets of pure creativity and higher level output controlling process. This is specially useful when the processes are quite complex and large. We should normally avoid defining procceses upto the last level of details. But unfortunately all out IT applications are well defined processes. Thats the only reason people who don’t have interest in the work addressed by proccesses follow them blindly. People who are interested in that work get frustrated about not being able to better that process and crib about dumb IT systems. To summarize processes are a good means to replicate productivity in new industrialized world. But their depth of definitions should be controlled to allow creativity , which is a human need.

  4. Kumar Nishant
     ·  Reply

    Processes – we must consider this point while going gaga about the processes that if at all, where the resentment for the process is coming from. Processes make life easy for someone who is following that – you have a routine to follow in which you tend to become expert with passage of time. So none of us who like to live our life in a comfort zone and make self-creativity to go into a lifelong hibernation will resent processes. The resentment comes from people (well most of the time if they are not resenting just for sake of it) whose creativity is well awake and keeps kicking.I think what I missed in this otherwise superbly contextual and perfect argument is stress on the “context/environment” in which process makes sense. In the service environment where productivity is one of the most important concerns, the environment is not very conducive for creativity. I guess chief concern is on the last section of assembly line where the number of units is being counted and data being documented is units vs time, rather than applying much thought on what way its following. But consider the environment in which the core issue is inventions like looking for something which can open a new horizon. Process getting in sync with creativity – this I think is more of a “Chinese egg” – never gonna hatch. There are people in service industry too who manage to bring rabbit out of the hat , but then wizards are not normal people – isn’t it? We can’t generalize exceptions.Context is important here. Processes blessing for service based environment but it can be curse for few other places. We can get in touch with people involved in the flood rescue operation to understand how much following processes help them.

  5. Ishan Bhalla
     ·  Reply

    Wow! Must say I’m quite overwhelmed by the response on this post… looks like i’ve struck a chord here ;)@Pravin – Though I agree, in theory, to defining a processes to a certain level of depth to allow for creativity, but in practice, how much is too much? In that same direction I tend to agree more with @Mike’s suggestion of defining a process with reasons for each step and in addition encouraging a culture of questioning and thus allowing enough room for creativity. @Mike – I like the personality types you have mentioned. Found myself smiling when I could recollect some that I’ve come across.@Nishant- I think one of the reasons for the lack of creativity and mindless focus on following established processes today is the constant focus on predictability in business today. Shareholders demand predictability and reliability from the organization which discourages too much risk taking and thus stifles creativity.

  6. Mike Fox from Boeing
     ·  Reply

    @Pravin – I agree with you. The reason to define a process is specifically to prevent creativity. Creative solutions are always slower than defined solutions and a business wants quick solutions to maximize its profits. However, some tasks require creativity and for those tasks a process cannot be rigidly defined. Smart managers must know the difference between well-defined tasks that should be done per a process and creative tasks for which the manager must allow flexibility and experimentation.

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