15 things you must do to grow a "process culture"

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Have you ever wondered why being late is a norm for most airlines barring one or two super performers which have more than 90% on-time performance? Or why, closer to home, a McDonald’s burger tastes the same everywhere while your favorite dish cooked by your wife is never same as your mom's.

You could call it standardization but if you look more closely it comes to an undiluted focus on process.

Many organizations have realized and are using their core processes as competitive differentiators while many others in the same business are struggling for survival. So what are the industry leaders doing differently? One of the key aspects is developing and nurturing a process culture.

So….what is a "Process Culture"?

Imagine if you could get this kind of following for process!

An organizational culture that supports the design and maintenance of efficient and effective business processes constitutes process culture. Business process is a logical link between business strategy, business model and day to day operations. Process culture is a manifestation of employee behavior, attitude and practices that drive the activities they perform on day to day basis to impact the strategic objectives positively on a consistent basis.

Why do I need a Process Culture?

Translating strategic intent into execution is the key objective of developing a process culture. Process culture brings the much needed discipline and rigor to ensure firms stay on track and employees do not take the easy way out but follow the standard path optimized for that firm.

Business processes help connect the various elements of an organization. If these links are flexible enough to help the organization respond to the market volatility before the competition in a sustained manner they provide a source of competitive advantage that is not imitable in the short term.

Toyota was able to do that by aligning its business processes to reinforce their ‘Just in Time’ model and Southwest Airlines was able to develop activity systems that helped support its strategy by reducing its turnaround time.

Without process integrity, lean designs deteriorate quite quickly and improved processes through Six Sigma or other well-known methodologies can soon become sub-optimal and inefficient. Process culture nurtures and sustains each business process and continuously aligns it to the overall organizational goals.

Process visibility also facilitates process digitization. The current wave of digitization is fundamentally changing the business models of various organizations. Mobile service providers are enabling migrant workers to transfer money through mobile charges. One of India’s largest banks, ICICI, has moved to tablet banking (which they call "tab banking") and completely automated the account opening process, reducing the lead time from days to minutes.

Digitization requires resources well beyond the typical technological infrastructure investments and hence needs trade offs. Clarity of processes facilitate identifying the chain of processes that create the maximum value for the organization in terms of top line or bottomline impact. This in turn, helps determine the processes which can be key contenders for digitization.

If an enterprise has attuned itself to start thinking about its processes and establishing behaviors around it, eliminating redundant steps and automating transactional processes makes it more efficient and agile.

Thus, process driven culture drives speed and agility across the organization and not in silos of various departments. It helps the entire enterprise move faster at lower cost in a direction which is customer and service driven.

What does it take to establish a Process Culture in an organization?

While every organization is unique, there are few core principles that can help you start on the journey of establishing a process culture and foster it:

#1: Have the end in sight:

It's essential to have a view of what you want to achieve or the benefits you see from a process oriented organization. The end objectives will define the actions needed to achieve them and that will form the basis of rules around those actions.

  • Are you driving up the revenue in the organization or driving down the costs?
  • Are you driving process monitoring and optimization?
  • Are you driving standardization across geographies, product units?
  • Are you re-vamping your organization to the new market dynamics and changes?

Example: A global oil and gas firm has defined a 3 year roadmap to integrate its multiple functions and geographies by setting up a process repository aligning the process assets to drive process improvement and standardization. Aligning processes across functions and geographies also triggered other changes like consolidation of roles, applications etc. in the organization.

#2: Gain Leadership Buy-In:

Leadership at the highest levels in the organization should see the value of going through the process journey and should identify a senior leader to be the harbinger of process culture.

Managing processes is not glamorous and that’s the reason that not many in the organization want to be responsible for it. As a result, process management often remains without an owner. Thus, the first step to developing process culture is to identify an owner who acts as a custodian and provides a home for these processes.

The leader of the process management should be given the right authority needed to establish the process rules and framework.

Example: The oil and gas firm referred to above identified a Process Champion at a senior level. This was a full time role and got the required sponsorship in terms of budget and integration support from the senior management.

#3: Clearly define guidelines to govern process actions:

Culture is an aggregated outcome of the actions and intentions defined by a group to guide the members to achieve the desired outcome. An organization needs to define the principles and guidelines that guide its members’ behavior towards processes.

Adopting any of the process improvement methodologies - CMMI, ISO series, Baldridge, Lean, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Toyota Production System, etc. - and tying various process initiatives through to centralized process governance helps to articulate these guidelines. Process maturity should be defined and the organization should strive to move to higher level of maturity.

#4: Closely monitor actions, point out deviations and reinforce rules:

Once the guidelines are defined, they need to be socialized among all the concerned stakeholders to change them into habits. Training and communication could be the initial route for this but repetition and monitoring is the key to convert actions into habitual behavior. Team leaders and departmental heads should be trained to do process audits and highlight deviations to team members. Process management teams should be empowered to do regular process audits for the entire business function.

Example: At a large Telecom company which was rolling out a big transformation program, Process owners were identified and were the single points of contact for all process and IT changes impacting the process. These process owners were also responsible for communicating and training the end users on the changes being rolled out.

#5: Identify early adopters and let it go viral:

As with society cultures, certain groups of the society adopt the l guidelines more readily than others and then mingle with others to spread them. In your organization identify groups that could be early adopters like Risk and compliance, HSSE etc. and then let them share what's working for them with others. Develop Communities of Practice to spread the message. Explore internal media like notice board, bulletins, internal social networking sites, knowledge portals to spread the message and the benefits.

Example: At a global FMCG company, for instance, process communities were formed in each region which in turn owned the process discussions and promoted free exchange of information and best practices.

#6: Influence the most impressionable to carry on the tradition:

Embed the emphasis on process culture and the rules on process behavior as part of the onboarding process. Since, new joiners are more open to learning about the ways of the new organization and are more receptive to change, it is relatively easier to influence them on the process way of doing things. In addition, supporting that with related experiences helps embed that culture more deeply.

Example: New joiners at a large fast food chain are told to focus on how things are done and that they have to strictly stick to procedures.

#7: Link process objectives to individual metrics:

Establishing a culture requires leveraging the right rewards and recognition mechanisms. In many organizations, annual performance management has explicit goals to reinforce process thinking, as appropriate to the individual’s role. This ensures that individuals are aligned to the overall organization’s objectives.

Example: At a global oil major, roll out of the process repository has been linked with annual objectives of the process architects and process owners to ensure timely adoption by different geographic units.

#8: Continue to support your process culture:

Establishing a culture happens over generations. Efforts put into this journey will show results only after a certain gestation period so continuing to support those efforts is the key. Developing a process management practice, getting all processes documented and making them a way of working takes a minimum of 3-4 years and after that requires minimal continued investment to keep it relevant.

#9: Communicate rigorously:

An organization that has scaled up from a start-up and is going the globalization route to become a multi-national corporation, will need to change its way of working and the inherent culture quickly. For such an organization it is essentially a PR exercise; it needs to win peoples’ hearts and minds and gain buy-in to a process-aligned approach from the initial ad-hoc approach needed to support the start-up culture.

For a well-established organization like most Fortune 500 companies, communication on the ongoing process changes and its impact on people and technology is equally important. The process management team should leverage data to showcase the benefits of adopting a process culture and communicate it regularly to all concerned. A well informed team can act in a coordinated fashion to ensure that the processes are executed as per design and are always on the improvement path.

#10: Build a governance mechanism and operationalize it:

Assign a team within the organization to focus on process as part of their existing roles and specifically identify Process "Champions" who are responsible for certain process areas. The team should meet regularly, set priorities, discuss progress, and share successes to ensure that the process management is continually living and breathing. This team not only drives process improvement but also coordinates the numerous initiatives across the organization while keeping the senior management involved.

#11: Allow movement between business management and process management teams:

There are merits in keeping the team designing business processes (in consultation with teams operating those processes) separate from the teams running those processes to allow for standardization, audit checks etc. There needs to be enough flexibility in resources that executives within the two teams can easily move around in the two roles to allow for the ideas to integrate and then be implemented.

#12: Establish feedback mechanisms and encourage participation:

Teams across the organization should be encouraged to look for areas of improvement and float these ideas with other teams and the process champions so that select ideas can be implemented. This acts as a great inspiration to the people who nurture and promote these ideas. A well-coordinated and monitored feedback mechanism helps in ensuring that the ideas are continually tapped and attended to.

#13: Cultivate communities of practice:

Process behaviors are reinforced and sustained if teams realize others in the organization are taking the same route. Communities form a powerful way to bring practitioners together periodically to discuss topics that are relevant and share knowledge across the enterprise. They act as platforms where members can validate their process journey and also seek support if needed.

#14: Leverage a process repository:

A repository is a place to host and publish processes so that they are living and breathing – easy to access and easy to update. It provides an overarching view of the processes, allowing those to drill down where required and making it easy to access information without getting bogged down with lots of other information. Simple, helpful process guidance also makes a big difference and often results in less time spent on fire-fighting issues resulting in more time on improvement

#15: Support innovation through process management:

It is often considered that process management and innovation are contradictory concepts that cannot coexist. However, as depicted in Six Sigma methodology if you try to optimize an unstable process basis the random results it is giving, the process deviation increases and the mean changes. Thus it is essential to stabilize the process through process management before process innovation.

Innovation is usually referred to as ‘Out of Box’ thinking, but it is important to define that box (in this case) the process and then determine if small incremental process improvements are sufficient to meet the business needs or if a radical shift is required.

It is equally important to have a process for innovation as for companies where innovation is the key to remain competitive, there need to be well defined processes for selecting ideas, funding them etc. to support ongoing innovation

Is it enough to have a process culture?

To continue on the process journey, identifying the target process maturity level for each process and assessing the current maturity level periodically helps to ensure the process journey continues. The eventual goal of process organizations should be to establish a "Process of Process Management" to ensure business processes stay relevant and adhere to a common framework across the organization.

In addition, establishing a process culture internally is the key but once employee behaviors start depicting the understanding and adherence to processes, the natural next step is to extend it to the firm's ecosystem - suppliers and customers included. Ebay has done it successfully by getting its key customers to co-create the processes impacting user experience. They make quarterly changes to incorporate feedback from customers.


Most organizations understand the business case for process alignment and the competitive advantage that can be unfolded through a diligent process focus. They struggle though in establishing the right discipline around process adherence.

Establishing a process culture by defining clear guidelines and then reinforcing them through various mechanisms is essential in changing the fundamental employee behavior towards processes. Once established process culture will enable the entire organization towards meeting the next wave of challenges brought by increasing volatility and digitization trends in a more agile and effective manner.