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!?
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"
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
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
August 4, 2012