When clients ask how to develop better processes for almost any aspect of their business, I ask them what’s triggered their concern. Sometimes the people implementing the process or the people at the receiving end are unhappy with each other. Often both sides think that if only the other side was more specific about requirements, then the process would work. But sometimes the two sides are looking for better processes because of the need for organizational change.
Say, for instance, that an organization is growing and suddenly an assistant manager or admin is hired for a senior manager who’s been doing a particular task or activity for a long time. The senior manager may hesitate to share or shed tasks that have mattered to their feelings of achievement or sense of contribution. The senior manager may not be ready to push responsibilities down the organization, not even to free up time so that they can focus on planning, ideation, growth, or accountability — all things that might be of higher value for the organization but feel vague or riskier and therefore, less satisfying.
Why Would Anyone Object to Specifying Processes?
Some leaders would prefer not to have any formalized processes at all. They may think that freshly customized responses feel more genuine and are better than a standardized response that mostly works well but may not cover every situation perfectly.
Some process owners can also resist making processes or practices explicit. They’re afraid that if everyone can do the same thing, they’ll lose their sense of individual craftsmanship or turn into indistinguishable cogs; or if the steps are specified and documented, they’ll be held to too high a standard of productivity. And sometimes a certain task or activity rarely comes up, so there’s no single person responsible for it, or there might be numerous people who could do it but don’t have ownership for it.
Changing People’s Perspective About Process
If you’re trying to standardize and formalize processes, try explaining that you have goals for reducing effort as well as for better service or deliverability. This can help lessen employees’ concerns that you’re trying to trivialize or undercut their autonomy or value in any way, and also help encourage them to focus more on higher-order problems and opportunities.
Here are some ways to think about the effectiveness of current processes in your organization and decide whether you want to revisit them or develop new ones.
- Show that you’re capturing and memorializing the organization’s historical knowledge to gain an understanding about why things are done the way they are and reconsider the best way to do things for the future.
- Ask your internal specialists or experts how they do things, and list or map out all the details. Then, as a way to debug the process, treat those instructions like a new experiment and follow them explicitly to see if the results of the newly documented process match what’s been happening. Keep the approach that works the best.
- Have the original task owner observe the task as it’s being done by someone else. Verify with others who also do the task whether they do it the same way. Check in with the downstream departments: When we do it this way, do you get the results you need?
- Look at processes that were built or patched for a specific purpose or event, which often happens to correct something that’s gone wrong. Do these fail-safe methods or extra levels of quality control add value, or are they safeguards against problems that no longer occur?
- Examine the entire process backwards. To get the optimal end result, identify what would be the last finishing step; the next-to-last, almost-perfect step; and the three steps before that, all the way back to the first step. Then, take that chain of steps, implement them in the correct order, and see if you get the desired result.
One of the great benefits of clarifying and documenting process is that it generates information that’s helpful for planning for both inputs and deliverables. If you experience continued resistance to clarifying or standardizing process, try making a business case to show how the revised processes will pay off. These benefits can include cost savings for improving speed and accuracy, increased flexibility when more people can implement, and the reliability that leads to both greater accountability and the possibility of devoting resources to other issues.