Strategic Alignment: Are you doing puzzles while your CEO is playing chess?

Don't get lost in your processes. Make sure you're playing the same "game" as your business executives.

I’d be a rich woman if I had a penny for each time someone asked the following question: "how did you get your business executives on board your process excellence initiative?"

This is a question that crops up with nearly every webinar we run and nearly every conference presentation I attend. Even though process improvement approaches like Lean and Six Sigma have been around for decades, it seems that we haven’t perfected the art of explaining to executives just why process matters.

So why is this?

We have to first face up to this rather troubling fact: process is not sexy.

"But everything that we do in life is a process," you might be shouting at your computer right now. Process has enabled modern life as we know it. How can that NOT be sexy?!?

What game are you playing?

I know it’s difficult to accept but the truth is that the vast majority of human beings don’t think of what they do as a process. They don’t like numbers or – even worse - complicated statistics. Moreover, they’re just trying to get through the day in as efficient a way as possible.

Senior executives, in particular, are also worried about the big picture: where is my industry heading? How do we maintain competitive advantage? What help us deliver better value to shareholders?

Coming in and speaking process to someone who is focused on the big picture is a little like talking about the necessity of fixing a screw to someone whose problem is that their car won’t go. Yes, that screw might play a critical role in helping the car run again, but they won’t be inclined to listen unless you explain why it’s relevant.

I recently interviewed a number of process practitioners for our report Trends and Success Factors in Business Process Excellence 2014. One of them, Ginny Youngblood from DuPont, had a great analogy to explain how process practitioners and business executives think differently.

This is what she said:

"People who can think in ‘process’ really well tend to be perfectionists. They want everything to be perfect – they want to see every little piece of the business and how it fits together like a big puzzle. Senior leaders don’t really think that way – for them it’s more like a chess game. And as long as you have people putting together a puzzle talking to people playing a chess game, it will never work. It’s too big a divide."

So how does this gap manifest itself?

We recently surveyed senior business executives and process professionals about their views on process excellence.

In organizations that had a process excellence program, 37.5% percentage business executives stated that the aim of their process excellence program was to "improve customer satisfaction through quality and efficiency." Only 23.8% of process professionals selected this option (see chart below).

What is the primary purpose of your process excellence program? Comparison of the response of business executives and process professionals. PEX Network survey, July/August 2013 (Click to enlarge image)

Equally, a higher percentage of process professionals than of business executives stated that the primary aim of their process excellence program was to cut costs, improve quality or automate processes. These aims are more tactical rather than strategic. Cost cutting, for instance, is likely to be just one aspect of enabling the business to achieve its strategic objectives. Improving quality, on the other hand, is also likely to be a contributing factor to improved customer satisfaction.

It can be taken as fact that technical people and managers think different: both in terms of how they think and what they think about. And unless you’re speaking a language they understand, getting your executives on board will always be a challenge.

So the key is understanding what outcomes your organization cares about and reframing what you’re doing as a strategic advantage.

Afterall, it’s much better to play chess with your CEO then to sit in a dark corner and build a puzzle by yourself.