Frankenstein and the Ghost of Processes Past

Jeff Cole

There is no shortage of broken processes in organizations crying out to be improved, says columnist Jeff Cole. But when it comes to changing them there are two types of errors leaders make. Here’s how to avoid them.

Why do we change processes in any organization? Have we proactively identified, mapped, evaluated, and prioritized all of our processes so we know which ones to improve and in what order? Or, is there perhaps a looser method in place? Alternatively, it seems some processes never seem to change – even in the face of compelling evidence that they should.

Have you ever seen a process that seemed either very slow or had some repetitive or odd steps in it? Have you ever inquired as to why it was being done that particular way? Often you hear one of my all-time rage-inducing replies "We’ve always done it that way."

If that logic held any validity then women would not be allowed to vote, people would be smoking in offices and on airplanes, and you would not be reading this column on something called the internet.

There’s an old story – a newly married couple sits down for dinner and one spouse notices that the other has baked a ham but cut both ends off. Thinking that was odd, they asked why. Answer: That’s the way my mother did it. Next time they were at the in-laws, the spouse asked the mother-in-law – why cut the ends off the ham? She said "Back then we only had a small roasting pan and it was the only way to make it fit"

Processes are like that – what made sense in 1995 when the process first was built may not make sense now (or maybe it never made sense – who knows). Today’s processes often carry the ghosts of processes past. There is no shortage of broken processes in organizations crying out to be improved.

The reverse side of this coin is just as bad and has destroyed massive amounts of productivity around the globe – taking a proven process that works perfectly well and changing it for no good reason. Renowned quality guru W. Edwards Deming even had a phrase for it – "tampering"

Often an executive takes over a new division and wants to make their mark on it. If the organization was previously decentralized, he or she may dictate that they now centralize, etc. Changes to the organizational chart and processes then ensure in a rapid flurry of activity meant to denote progress. Sometimes that’s for the better, and sometimes it’s not.

But there is a hidden cost to all of that change.

When it comes to changing processes, there are two types of errors leaders can make:

Type 1: changing a stable and capable process that should be left alone (often for either no reason or reasons that lack logic).

Type 2: taking an unstable or incapable process that should be improved and leaving it alone – taking no action.

So what is a proper rationale for change? Some processes are best left alone while others should be wheeled into the process ER immediately. How do we tell? It’s best to avoid driving random change, ego-based change, or driving no change even when the situations warrant. Some organizations follow an event-driven change model.

Event-driven change is often a reactive set of changes in your processes to account for an event that has happened in the market, your industry, or your organization. These happen all the time and account for a great deal of process change you may witness. This often drives a small "bandage" type change to the process in order to get it compliant with the latest environmental change. Over time though, those bandages pile up and you get a process that is a Frankenstein – a cobbled-together mess.

Perhaps the best way to approach this is strategically. Improvement methods like Six Sigma often encourage leaders to take a strategically-based approach to process change – identifying the most important processes in the organization and understanding how they all fit together. Knowing which processes and sub-processes are vital to driving key strategic metrics along with their current performance levels, allows leaders to properly prioritize any change efforts. Certain process metrics like Cp, Cpk, and Sigma Levels along with tools like Control Charts can tell leadership which processes might be left alone and which should be changed.

The good news for leaders following a strategically oriented approach to change is that they can clearly and succinctly lay out the reasons why a process is or is not changing and have quantifiable evidence to support their decisions!