"The best feature of a good process is that it does not rely on human discipline. " Amber Pawlik

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Good Process Improvement Does not Rely on Human 'Improvement'

Very often, I find myself in the midst of process debates. As a trained industrial engineer who is committed to process improvement, let me give my perspective.

The best feature of a good process is that it does not rely on human discipline. This is the core of most process debates: should the process improve or should humans improve? Too often, people who design processes—often while in an isolated meeting room—believe it should be the latter.

As a simple example, I once discussed with people a very simple “process” of printing a diagram. When printing it, unless precaution was taken, not only was the diagram printed but many other worksheets housed in the same workbook as the diagram. As that diagram would be printed often, I proposed that the diagram should be sectioned off so that no one had to do anything to print it, other than select “Print.” I was completely mocked: Why, people can’t take a few simple steps to section off the diagram!? Laziness! Stupidity!

I propose that by imposing these extra, unnecessary steps, the process set humans up for failure. There is no doubt that some would forget to do it and get more papers than they needed. Why put extra burdens on people when there need not be? This is admittedly a simple example but as processes become more complex, so does the potential for error.

When studying industrial engineering, we were taught that 80% of mistakes can be attributed to a bad process. Or, to look at it another way: Say you have 4 people who are asked to run through a particular process. If 3 out of 4 of them fail at the same exact spot, do you think the humans are bad or do you think the process is bad?

A well designed process has several characteristics. One is that it should have as few steps as possible. The steps in the process should be well-written and not too wordy. If a process step has paragraphs written and need to be “decoded” by the reader with perhaps a magnifying glass, this is ripe ground for failure. It is a glaring sign of a bad process if there are many “buts” and “watch out fors” and “if this then this's" in it.  

An ideal process has clear markers of failure or success. The markers should be unimposing and elegant in design. A simple example is electrical sockets and plugs. To prevent the dire consequences that would happen by putting the wrong plug into the wrong socket, the design of the plugs and sockets are such that only compatible plugs and sockets fit together. This puts the heavy lifting on the design of the product rather than human discipline.

Some may say that this is a malevolent view of humans—that it supposes humans are too lazy or stupid to improve. But a process is just that—a process. It always involves repetitive steps that could otherwise be done by a robot or computer. No, I think they have the very poor view of humans: that the work they do should be simply following orders precisely. Indeed, I think those who design processes that are labor intensive tend to have a poor view of humans. What the poor process designers want is not for humans to be set up for success or be encouraged to take initiative or think out of the box but to obey. Indeed, they often lament that humans can’t follow orders or take direction—an accusation that only the snootiest of elitists could conjure up. I am appalled when people levy this criticism against other people. Personally, I would take it as a badge of honor if someone said I cannot follow orders.

Ultimately, why weigh people down in process hell? Get all of the stupid, unnecessary obstacles out of their way. When processes are good and otherwise mundane work is automated, it liberates the human mind to focus its energy elsewhere—on creative pursuits. Indeed, the kind of cutting-edge, creative pursuits that lead to genuine process improvement.

Amber Pawlik
August 4, 2012

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