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Process Ownership: Improving Results for Customers through Collaboration (Not Control)

Contributor: Andrew Spanyi
Posted: 03/29/2016
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Process ownership is widely recognized as one of the cornerstones of process excellence. The principal thought leaders in Six Sigma, reengineering and continuous improvement have all extolled the virtues of process ownership.

In “The Six Sigma Way,” the authors wrote “Perhaps the most essential step in the transformation to process management is the designation of process owners.” Dr. Geary Rummler, arguably one of the earliest and the most articulate proponent of process ownership, wrote that a process owner is “someone with clout who is … taking action to improve the performance of an entire cross-functional process” Dr. Michael Hammer, the foremost vocal advocate of reengineering, wrote that “every process in a process enterprise requires a process owner – a manager responsible for ensuring that the entire process keeps flourishing …”

In theory a process owner is a senior manager with clout, while in practice a process owner is most frequently a middle manager without much clout or influence. Sowhen I consider the amount of progress companies have made on shifting management attention through process ownership at a practical level, I am reminded of the popular “yogism”; “in theory there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice there is.”

Why is this? Partly because process ownership has been co-opted by traditional functional thinkers such that the role of process owners has become substantially different than what was originally intended. Just consider how process owners are appointed. In some cases, a lean six sigma black belt advocates the appointment of a process owner to “control” a process that has been improved through DMAIC. Alternatively, the system integrators for an ERP implementation recommend that middle managers be appointed for so called end to end processes such as order to cash, procure to pay, and hire to retire. And once in a while, some senior executive “gets religious” around process and appoints a middle manager to “own” a process such as procure to pay.

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While the appointment of process owners in any of these three ways has the potential to end up with a focus on improving the customer experience through enterprise wide process orientation – it rarely does.  If your organization wishes to make process ownership work – and shift management attention to what really matters to customers – then consider the following pitfalls to avoid.

Pitfall #1: The drive on process ownership is NOT top down

If senior leadership are not actively driving process ownership, it’s not likely to result in a greater emphasis on improving the customer experience through enterprise wide process orientation.  In the absence of ongoing leadership support, few such efforts are sustainable.

Pitfall #2: The scope of responsibility of process owners is too narrow

Process ownership needs to have a certain degree of scope to be effective in driving process orientation. Too often, the scope of responsibility of process owners is defined within department boundaries. In this case there is frequently overlap and redundancy between what departmental management and process owners do.

Pitfall #3: The scope of responsibility of process owners is too wide

However, the remit cannot be so wide that the political challenges involved will be so great that the process owner is not likely to succeed. This is especially true if the scope of responsibility of process owners is defined in terms of mega processes such as order to cash, procure to pay, or hire to retire.

Pitfall #4: The job description is too complex

The role needs to be desirable and the responsibilities need to be achievable.  Only a handful of deliverables are needed, with a focus on improved performance through collaboration, customer experience and measurement. 

Pitfall #5: If the emphasis on control trumps the focus on collaboration

The entire foundation of process ownership is based on collaboration – NOT control and, frankly, the concept of controlling processes is no longer popular with the rank and file in many organizations.   

Conversely, there are at least 4 critical success factors involved with shifting management attention to what really matters to customers through process ownership.

Success factor #1: Give it a name that has clout

The label of process ownership needs to be changed to something that is more descriptive and desirable. Instead of “process owner for order to cash” consider “Director – Perfect Order Delivery.” Instead of “process owner – procure to pay” consider “Director – Request to Receipt.”

Success factor #2: Measure what matters to customers

This is the foundational tactic for mitigating the obstacles of perception and complexity. It enables leaders to ask questions around operational performance and creating value for customers. By emphasizing metrics such as perfect order delivery (on-time, complete, error-free), perfect response to inquiries and complaints (first-time-right, complete, error-free), and variance to promise date for new product or service introduction, leaders can raise thought-provoking questions that directly strike to operational performance and require cross-departmental collaboration.

Success factor #3: Establish partnerships

Establishing partnerships is another key tactic that can mitigate key obstacles. Establishing a close and collaborative relationship with the chief executive officer (CEO), the chief operating officer (COO), the chief financial officer (CFO) and the chief information officer (CIO) is arguably the most important of these partnerships for increased process orientation and fundamental to success. Others may advocate major change, but, invariably, the CEO leads the communication of the case for change and the arbiter in deciding which members of the leadership team need to engage.

Success factor #4: Promote Learning

This is the final critical success factor. By measuring what matters to customers and forging essential partnerships, the leadership team can lead lunch and learn sessions around the performance of critical processes and be front and center in reinforcing the need for cross functional collaboration.

If your organization wishes to tear down silos and focus on improving customer experience through enterprise wide process orientation, you may wish to consider these five pitfalls and four critical success factors.


Thank you, for your interest in Process Ownership: Improving Results for Customers through Collaboration (Not Control).
Andrew Spanyi
Contributor: Andrew Spanyi