After side-stepping common process design pitfalls, companies can deploy a streamlined set of principles to quickly and effectively develop operational processes.
Assuming that the foundational importance of strong process culture is evident within the ranks at a company, let’s explore an optimal process design approach for small- and mid-sized companies. Staying true to the Turnaround Science Growth Philosophy that discourages rinse-and-repeat tactics, the focus should be on the properties of a strong approach that can move a company to an “Insightful” Objective & Analytical Culture maturity level. First, there are some common pitfalls to steer clear of.
Common Mistakes To Avoid
Trivializing operational expertise
Do not underestimate process design as an “off the side of the desk” effort. Companies attribute different levels of respect to different types of skills (different by industry). Executives who do not have experience at companies that make or handle physical products have a tendency to assume that anyone can chalk up some ideas and improve operations. This is false. Operations, which process falls under, is as much or more scientific and more studied than marketing or product development. People dedicate their careers to this space. So, do not hand off this critical responsibility to resources without relevant experience. Another manifestation of this mistake is to ask everyone to improve processes collectively; it doesn’t work.
So, companies should ensure that the ownership to develop a process culture is granted to a resource with a strong operational background. A small- to mid-sized company only needs one primary process designer, who might also have other related analytical responsibilities. Spreading the ownership around will likely cost the company more through unnecessary involvement from too many individuals, while rendering poorer results.
Reactive top-down design
As a company grows, senior executives naturally feel the need to have more visibility into what their employees are doing and what is working well. This implies looking at the data that the company has. But, there is really no reliable data without robust underlying processes. So, what happens next?
The senior executives ask the next level of managers that certain types of information be collected going forward. These managers (not process designers) in turn tell Frontline ‘Variable’ Resources, who execute processes, to start capturing this information and mandates it; this ask is process change. From Frontline Resources’ perspective, they are now going out of their way to log some information at some arbitrary time in the middle of their day-to-day activities. Since this ask doesn’t fit their natural flow of activities, they tend to forget or ignore it completely. After all this, unfortunately, the data and related analyses that the senior executives desire won’t make much sense.
This is an example of a design mindset that results in poor processes. Process design should be based on what works best for people who perform day-to-day activities, as long as it works in the company’s interest.
Forgetting that processes are alive
Process design is not a one-and-done effort. It requires observation for adoption and adherence through reporting. Additionally, rapid-growth companies have to continue to improve organizational maturity and productivity through strategic planning initiatives and their operationalization. Such improvements have to be baked into process definitions, which is the only path to ensure Frontline ‘Variable’ Resources embrace the operational changes.
Six Process Design Principles
Scaling companies should not complicate process design with heavy methodologies because it is unnecessary. A process methodology is only necessary in situations where a company has several process designers. A small- to mid-sized company only needs one. Assuming the company assigns this responsibility to an experienced hand, there are six principles that the process design should cover.
The streamlined design approach developed for the Turnaround Science Growth Framework has six principles, as illustrated in the visual below. It can be deployed to develop the foundational processes required at companies of any size. These are not complex principles, but one could look around an organization and assess whether process definitions have at least these six principles accounted for. If not, these would be an optimal place to start.
1: Governing approach
A process in a vacuum is meaningless. It has to be dictated by a governing approach. Such an approach should work to answer overarching questions such as:
- What is the business need that this process will achieve?
- What are the overall qualitative and quantitative benefits (leading indicators) of executing the process as designed?
- Why should the process be performed the way it will be?
- How does this process relate to other operations in the company?
- What are the thresholds that should trigger a reevaluation of the process itself?
Processes should add up to something bigger than itself and a governing approach describes that. Once such an approach is defined and agreed upon, the step-by-step activities should be articulated to achieve that approach by minimizing the amount of work that each person needs to do – these are the process steps. Two examples include:
- A sales playbook (essentially, a process narrative) should be designed based on the company’s sales approach, which explains the overarching sales philosophy the company has adopted.
- A new product evaluation process has to be based on an overarching product development approach, that covers the company’s product life cycle methodology, criteria for product development, etc.
The most important outcome of a process definition is to broadly communicate ownership of specific tasks. All day-to-day operational processes are executed by Frontline Resources. In other words, process design should clearly articulate which Frontline Resource is responsible for performing which process step. Each illustrative process step shown in the visual above has a beginning and an end. The more specific the qualification of each process step, and the alignment between that step and the role on the left side, the better the process.
3: Leading indicator guidelines
Simplistically, a process or process step is a set of instructions to convert a certain input to an output, whether it is performed by a human or a machine. A good process step churns out the same output almost every time. So, a process definition should have an articulation of two components: 1) What are the specific instructions that the role should perform to get a good output, including use of technology? and 2) What does good output look like, measurable using qualitative or quantitative data?
Processes must have quantitative thresholds to monitor performance against. Such metrics are called leading indicators. Strategic Planning and Operational Planning must ensure that all processes have the appropriate metrics and associated thresholds defined to allow a company to limit the amount of time it dedicates to monitoring process adherence via reporting.
4: Hand-off guidelines
If you watch team sports of any kind, when does a team usually lose possession? It happens usually when the ball is passed. It is much more uncommon for a player to just drop the ball or stumble over themselves. Corporate environments are not different.
A vast majority of operational breakdowns happen when an individual or a team hands off responsibilities to another individual or role. A disproportionate amount of attention should be given to such transitions in the process. Some simple, but highly effective questions that should be asked to ensure that each transition is pressure tested include:
- How will the preceding role logistically send the work to the succeeding role?
- How will the role in the succeeding step know that work is being passed on?
- Do specific actions need to be taken to confirm the hand-off?
- Once the hand-off is complete, when should the succeeding role start working?
- Is there a specific technology involved to record or simplify the hand-off?
5: Decision criteria
Business operations involve making choices such as deciding whether approvals are required, whether a specific follow-up action is required, etc. Every role should have absolute clarity on 1) the decisions that the company wants them to make, and 2) specific guidelines to help the role make consistent and accurate choices.
6: Information capture guidelines
Today, almost every action can be captured and measured using technology. The last principle of a strong process design is the inclusion of guidelines to capture all relevant data elements – both manual (entered by humans) and systemic (somehow captured automatically or calculated automatically). A comprehensive view of the data elements that are associated with each process step completes the six core principles of process design.
With a strong operations expert and a preemptive process design mindset, an organization can leverage six simple principles to quickly develop a process foundation to manage core operations objectively and analytically.