Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Four Wheels of Process

Ever wondered what could be the basic building blocks of a business process, the wheels that make it run?  Considering the predominant position processes have in our lives today, it is a concept that certainly deserves some attention.

In one sense, the good old SIPOC (Supplier, Input, Process, Output, Customer) may be said to represent an appropriate framework.  As a huge champion of SIPOC, I am convinced it is one of the most powerful tools in the arsenal of any process manager.  However, the SIPOC takes a ‘process’ and sequential view, looking at the factors that impact a process.  When I talk about building blocks and wheels, I refer more to critical components that constitute process.  It is more of an in-depth and systematic look at the “P” in SIPOC.  I find that there are a few critical elements that drive the effectiveness and efficiency of most processes.  The Four Wheels approach suggested below is an attempt to focus attention on these ‘vital few’ elements.

I submit this more as a framework for further thought.  Hopefully, we will have more contributions to the idea and eventually have a model that can work effectively in most situations.

I believe four ingredients are critical for the completion of any process, especially in an organization setting.  Let me discuss them briefly:

The person (or group) entrusted with the process needs to have the authority to complete it.  This means, the authority to take the process all the way to an output that has a direct impact on a desired outcome or business result.  If this authority is limited, it will lead to passing the activity on to another person or group (or worse, another process), which has a direct bearing on the efficiency and effectiveness of the process.  At a minimum, it can lead to delays or disagreements.  Empowering the person concerned to complete the process also minimizes hand-offs – a bane for any process.
The key factors driving Authority are:
o Empowerment
o Understanding of process dynamics versus specialized skills

Information or Ingredients:  
Whether the process belongs in the real or the virtual world, the person needs to be in possession of all information and / or ingredients to perform the process.  Any shortcoming here can result in delays (in attempting to procure it) or defects in the output.
Information in turn, involves:
o identifying the information / ingredient required,
o having access to it as needed; and once that process is completed,
o the documentation of the completed process, for records.
Each of these elements can in turn cause inefficiencies or defects, if not addressed appropriately.

Systems & Infrastructure:
This primarily refers to IT systems, but not entirely.  Too many disparate systems, weak integration among them or unreliable infrastructure (frequent breakdowns) will delay the process or cause errors, besides impacting the motivation of the workers.
The key drivers in systems and infrastructure are:
o Understanding of process design requirements
o Well integrated systems / enterprise resource planning
o Reliable infrastructure

Manpower (Skills & Motivation):
Finally, the person entrusted with the process needs to possess the skills necessary to complete the process.  Again, any lack of skills can result either in a defective output or delay caused by acquiring the skill.  Additionally, in today’s hyper-competitive, knowledge-driven environment, motivation of the persons entrusted with the process can make a ‘make-or-break’ difference.  Poor motivation levels can cause delays  (procrastination), defects (errors), or even fraud.
The key elements driving skills and motivations are well known:
o Hiring (especially to ensure, basic capabilities and motivation, which cannot be added later)
o Training,
o Compensation, and
o Leadership


It has been my experience that most process improvements fall within any one or a combination of these four wheels.  While I may be off at the edges, and there could well be some which fall outside these four, I do feel they should take care of the vast majority of processes.

I call these the four wheels of process because they not only support the vehicle that a process is, they are also critical in keeping it moving, in determining the direction the vehicle takes as well as in absorbing expected shocks on the road.

The power of looking at process in terms of wheels is that not only does it focus on the vital few components of a process; it can also be used as a ‘quick and dirty’ check list for making process improvements.  For instance, one could ask:
1. Does the team entrusted with this process have the authority to complete it?
2. Do we have a complete understanding of the information (or ingredients) needed to complete the process?  Does the team have access to all the information required?
3. Has the person handling the process been equipped with all necessary systems and infrastructure to complete the process effectively and efficiently?
4. Does the team have all the skills required and the motivation to perform the process to ensure the output meets the desired outcome?

A negative answer to any of the questions should lead an enquiry into the root cause(s) for that and an exploration of ideas to eliminate such root causes.

The four wheels are conceptually akin to the typical categories one selects for an Ishikawa Diagram (aka Fishbone analysis).  I am talking about categories like Machine, Method, Material, Manpower, Policies, Procedures and the like.  In that sense I would recommend using the four wheels as the four bones of the fish.  Simpler and more focused.

May be I am over simplifying the problem.  Nevertheless, as a new idea, I would certainly put it to the severest test.  You will hear more about this from me.  For sure.