I was recently fortunate enough to have lunch with a new colleague and as we idly shared tapas and chatted about work, I accidentally let one of my dirty secrets slip.
Some conversation topics can have a stigma attached to them, like admitting that you’re a grown adult who still plays computer games (it’s 2019, get over it) or that you don’t like football (either the kind you play with your actual feet, or the American kind). Admitting that you really enjoy working on ‘process’ is equivalent to professing that you love ‘bureaucracy’, ‘micromanagement’ and related misdemeanours that are all unfairly seen as sides of the same tedious, soul-destroying coin. Having acknowledged my fascination with process engineering I waited somewhat nervously, watching to see if I’d ruined a perfectly good lunch.
Fortunately for my appetite I was met with a delighted grin and a shared enthusiasm for getting process right.
Why excellence isn’t ‘One and Done’
Hopefully you have had the good fortune to experience one of those rare moments of ‘great’; great teamwork, a great product launch, a great marketing campaign, or even a perfect sequence of moves in a video game (or, I suppose, a football match). The point is that sometimes we know something is great, and seeing great makes us feel good.
However, we shouldn’t confuse these luminous flashes of greatness with real excellence. Rather than a once-in-a-lifetime coincidence, a conjunction of heavenly bodies or the gods blessing us with extraordinary fortune, real excellence is the pursuit of repeatability. Excellence sees us consistently engineer valuable outcomes, enabling a production line of greatness through which we consistently overachieve.
Make it repeatable; then improve it
This is why process is so important. Far from being a synonym for bureaucracy, great process is a combination of discipline and refinement. Process enables us to make the most of the resources we have available and supports both continuous improvements and abrupt, state change transformations.
When I think about the process of learning, I’m regularly reminded about my experiences belatedly learning how to ice skate. Having a Canadian wife meant that my unforgivable lack of ability on the ice had severe social repercussions. While I could stay upright on the ice my style was more Bambi than Gretzky.
Each week we’d visit the local ice rink to join other adult novices for a beginners class. We’d skate for an hour across the ice, crashing with screams or giggles into the barriers. Progress was slow, laborious and full of bruises as we progressed through the curriculum.
As I look back, what stands out was how the failures expedited learning. Sometimes, one of us might succeed early with a new skill, but later fail to replicate our success. By experiencing failures repeatedly, we were able to slowly avoid each of those failures, until success itself became repeatable.
We may have had the good fortune to occasionally demonstrate success without practice, but the considered art of failing was the process that allowed us to succeed.
The value of process is derived from repeatability. If the activities necessary to achieve an outcome are erratic and not well understood it is extremely difficult to ensure the outcome will be repeatable.
You probably have many simple rules, or heuristics, in your life that help you repeatedly get good outcomes — perhaps you always put the milk in the tea cup first (only correct if the cup is bone china, by the way) or, as my Dad did, have a method for stirring it; “six one way, six the other”, he would intone (it works, try it!). Perhaps you repeat the way you pull your car into the street, or iron shirts, do your taxes or arrange your workday.
Heuristics are simple rules that implicitly make things more efficient for us in the real world. They help us save time and reduce effort — they’re the reason that the first trip to a new job is filled with sensation and newness, but somehow on the 500th day you arrive at work and don’t even remember leaving the house. Those simple rules stacked together become an unconscious process, a number of steps to achieve a goal with minimal effort.
These unconsciously refined processes are the first step, but conscious and continuous improvement is where the fundamental beauty of having a process shines through.
Process improvement isn’t just for experts
One process improvement I remember fondly came while working with a customer success team. We were hoping to make the team more efficient and improve the experience of our customers.
I dropped by the team’s desks to see how they were getting on. I chatted to the team leader, focusing on one particular task that continued to be troublesome. We discussed the way that the task was currently being trained out to new starters.
“Yeah, but that’s not how we do it”, a voice floated from across the desk. “The training says we should do it like that, but Alex showed me another way to do it which is much quicker”.
One of our apprentices, who had only been with the team for about a month, explained to us exactly what she was doing, and how much better it was than the process that was being trained to staff. This undocumented improvement wasn’t reflected in the training we were giving people.
The solution was simple; we just had to make sure that the training was updated with this optimised process. The real aim — and what we should all be focused on — is how we make process improvement habitual, whether it’s for us individually or as organisations.
Process doesn’t prevent creativity
“I never could have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order, and diligence.”
— Charles Dickens
It’s not uncommon to hear a complaint that instilling process around a creative endeavour is one step removed from brutalising artistic integrity, however having a disciplined process doesn’t mean forgoing creative or even artistic processes. Processes can support creativity, for instance ensuring that needlessly awaiting approval isn’t blocking the completion of a project, or ensuring that all of the prerequisites for an activity are ready before you start.
Processes can be used to make room for the important elements of a creative process, by ensuring that teams have an opportunity to spend time before committing to delivery. Constraints to the creative process have been found to improve creativity, and following a specific pattern like working to short deadlines can do just this.
Some of the greatest artists throughout history have relied on their own habits and processes to give them room for their own creativity. However, in creative processes as with all others, constant review and improvement is necessary to prevent the process from restricting and constraining our perspective. Processes, and habits, must be tended and replaced when they become sub-optimal.
The personal side of process improvement
I suspect that my fascination with process can be frustrating for those around me, not least those that I don’t work with. I find it hard not to watch for process improvements in the real world, like a biologist discovering new species.
It’s not unusual for me to become aware that I’m subconsciously assessing what is around me for risk or efficiency. I’ll happily sit and amuse — or frustrate — myself watching people just do things. The befuddling design of the queuing system in an otherwise excellent coffee shop; the incredible waste of the UK legal system in managing jurors; the unconscious transmission of route optimisation by a herd of commuters. All of these little processes are fascinating — the good ones providing small moments of joy, and the bad ones enough to leave me muttering under my breath.
I wouldn’t suggest that you rush out to replicate this behaviour all the time, but do pause and take time to reflect on the wonder that is a McDonald’s burger or your local public transport system. Learning how to become aware of unconscious, repeated tasks and turning them into considered process is just as important at home with your family as the benefits that you accrue when you make process engineering a focus of your work.