Processes are supposed to provide these three things
- A sure and presumably tested path to address repetitive situations, so that efficiency is ensured
- A mechanism to reduce, even suppress, uncertainty
- A defense or survival mechanism that ensures the stability of the system
When you put the three of them together, processes become a key piece of the company’s operating system. From how to claim travelling expenses to how to perform massive Due Diligence in front of a potential acquisition, all of those things are processes.
- That is one problem. Something that can be so universally applied loses meaning. Saying for example ‘we have (or we don’t) good processes in this company’ is like saying that you have nights and days, or that you have behaviours, or doors.When people, perhaps more precisely, complain ‘ we have too many processes’, what they usually mean is that organizational life is a cumbersome affair with self-inflicted pain all over the place. Nobody who has ever shared that complaint with me has ever explained the ‘too many’. Is there an acceptable number? 17?
- Second problem is that, once you have fallen in love with processes (for any of its three reasons: bring efficiency, they are anxiolytic and provide stability) you will need one for anything. Even if you don’t’. What would it be of the now glorious Design Thinking fashion without a process? But Design Thinking surely must be an attitude, some glasses to see the world, something above ‘a process’, not those ubiquitous hexagons. Ah, people remember those hexagons and apparently one can make a lot of money with them.
- And three. The very nature of the process makes them a potential ritual. The differences are clear from an anthropological perspective. Rituals are often meaningless and terribly inefficient (rain does not usually come after a few rounds of dancing) but they are incredibly strong and stable. At some point the ritual provides the glue, the belonging, the identity (and the prison), and when that happens, how the whole thing started, or what they tried to ‘solve’ becomes irrelevant. And almost unmovable.
An organization that has heavily ritualized its processes does not have to think too much. And what does not fit in (in one of those) is rejected in all sorts of antibody forms. In those territories, very often, a candid assertion of ‘we don’t have a process for that’ is met with incredulity and desolation leading to ‘we don’t know how to do it’. Here, knowing and having a process become pathologically coterminous.
When I challenge people in this area, I often get a defensive and uncomfortable push back: so are you telling me we don’t need processes? Kinda offensive if you ask me, because I have never said that. But this push back usually comes from people whose anxiety at the sole idea of de-processing is monumental.
We do need processes, please breath. What we don’t need is addiction. Process junkies ( and as we say in old Castilian, haberlos haylos, that is, there are indisputable lots of them), hijack the territories of efficiency and effectiveness, and are never satisfied with a kind-of-process, or mini versions of them. In the early days of Quality accreditations such as ISO, a high executive of Motorola said that ‘one could get an ISO certification for a life jacket made of concrete as long as it came with the right documentation and a system for relatives to claim’.
Processism is an illness, a subtle one, because it comes with no fever, actually some elated mood. When its terminal, you don’t have a company anymore, but an automatic machinery. Good for cookies and sausages, mind you.