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Jim Benson


You Only Control Processes You Control

Your process is your main arbiter of success

Published: Wednesday, January 2, 2019 - 13:02

It’s no wonder people are scared of process. When we have a large project or goal, we assume that the process to complete that work must be equally large. That is daunting. We’d rather just do it.

When we have taken the time to build a process for a large project, we’ve all witnessed what a large process gives us: bureaucracy. Sluggish systems of overactive checks, but rarely any active balances.

We end up with a heavy process that seeks to manage the flow of funds over quality, the tracking of individual actions over results, and a focus on formal, standardized repetition over healthy reaction and problem solving.

This is because we fundamentally don’t understand what process is or what it is for. Therefore, we punt.

We turn our processes over to other people (e.g., consultants, managers) or project management offices. We try to buy boxes of what we believe is process, but just end up being a confusing toolbox — like getting an Indiana Jones Lego kit when we need to build the Parthenon, or getting all the pieces of the Parthenon when we want to build a shed.

We end up with a process optimized for the needs of others and not for the needs of those actually doing or receiving the work.

The nickel tour of building a process

Let’s change that. Here are some simple guidelines to follow when you are figuring out how you will work with others:

Optimize when you can; standardize if you must. We would like to create processes (i.e., agreements of how we are working right now) that are both optimized and as compact as possible. We want a few, well-understood guidelines, actions, and agreements that help us flexibly achieve our professional goals (individually and as a team).

Responsibility beats accountability. Rather than building systems to hold people accountable (who to throw under the bus), we want systems of responsibility (that allow us all to safely get on the bus together).

Constancy of purpose beats your guesswork plan. Constancy of purpose is the core of our working environment. Who are we? Why am I here? What is my role? What are my freedoms? Why do I or anyone else care at all if this project is finished?

Constancy of purpose gives us both definition and a sense of place. With it, we know how to act— not just how to sit and wait for orders.

Build small, build focused, build intentionally. People often assume that if they are “agile” or “lean” they’ve found some magic pill to ignore their process. The reality is that neither agile nor lean are a process — they are collections of tools you might use in your process, but not processes in and of themselves.

Agile teams rarely have any idea of their process. Lean teams often fall into the trap of believing that value stream mapping and kaizen events are somehow a process.

When we build, we have to use the tools that make sense in the service of creating value. We therefore need small, flexible processes that are self-aware. Processes that regularly check to see if they are working. Preferably in real time (retrospectives every two months or quarterly kaizen events are window dressing).

Know and respect the humans. Agile’s best and most misunderstood message is: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Not even the people who wrote this understand it. They wrote this because “process” is usually something done to and not by people trying hard to get something done.

When we create any process, we need to focus on the people throughout the process. The customer, certainly, but not just the customer. Is everyone getting what he needs and providing what she is capable of?

One could write an entire book about GM doing patently stupid things trying to emulate Toyota, but one of the worst is how GM consistently tried to be “lean” by getting its suppliers to lower their prices on parts for GM cars. Even serious Toyota guys like Taiichi Ohno must have just laughed.

The point isn’t to lower the price. Deming must have had weekly calls with them yelling, “Point No. 4! Point No. 4!!” The point is to build a relationship and respect the supplier as a group of human beings.

Your process must understand its entire life cycle and make sure, as Bob Marshall would say, “Folks get their needs met.”

If you don’t build a system that gives people what they need (systemic optimization), they will get what they need in spite of your system (individual optimization).

Beyond the nickel tour. This is a post. It’s not a book. It’s not an online class. It’s not a certificate-generating program. It’s not a university course. That means it’s short, and detail will follow.

Your job, whether you accept it or not, is to take this information and think about how you and your team and your company currently work. Ask yourself if your process is your own, if you’ve mapped it at all, if you’ve considered what people need, if your teams share a definition of what you are really creating, and if you’ve taken responsibility for improving it.

Then... act.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

A pioneer in applying lean and kanban to knowledge work, and an internationally recognized speaker and writer, Jim Benson is CEO of the collaborative management consultancy Modus Cooperandi. He is a fellow in the Lean Systems Society and recipient of the Brickell Key Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, 2012. He is the creator of Personal Kanban and co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2011) and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013).