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Basic Business Cents: Learning about your processes

The field of management is focusing more and more on processes today. The birth of the internet, advances in communication and transportation, and global economic competition force organizations to be quicker and more innovative in order to retain existing customers and gain new ones. Get the processes right and you are more likely to produce better and more consistent outcomes than hammering on people for results, results, results.

This will take some work. Process management starts with process thinking. Peter Drucker in his book, "Post-Capitalist Society" pointed out, "a knowledge society needs process knowledge, something the schools have rarely even tried to teach."

Traditional management is a vertical organization with layers of management starting at the top and cascading down to the lowest level employee. Process management is a horizontal organization starting with the supplier and going across the organization to the input to the organization, to the process where work gets done to transform the material from the input to the output, and then to customers.

To begin the analysis of processes, first identify the few core or key processes of the organization and start with them. Leaders and/or owners of these core processes should be identified and they should report directly to the top executive and not to a "chain of command." Hence, the horizontal organization is born.

It is important to understand the way the core processes are currently working, not how they should be working, before attempting to improve or change. Eight questions are helpful to learn about the process. The questions are listed in a logical sequence but it is not necessary to work through them in order. For example, many people find it useful to map the process before finalizing the answers to the other questions. To draw this map, follow the work through the system and draw blocks where work is performed following the SIPOC (supplier, input, process, output, customer) model. Mapping or flow-charting the process this way is helpful in understanding how the work is performed and ways to simplify the procedure.

The eight questions to learn about the process are:

1. Who is the process owner, and who are the stakeholders?

2. What is the purpose and output of the process?

3. Who are the customers and what are their needs?

4. Who are the suppliers and what are their capabilities?

5. How does the process operate (flow)?

6. What measures will be used to monitor the process?

7. How is the process performing now?

8. What are the problems in the process?

Process ownership moves into something bigger because it tends to involve cross functionality and, therefore, impacts organization authority and power relationships. Some organizations prefer to move slowly into the chart of horizontal reporting and create a hybrid of traditional chain-of-command and the horizontal display of the key process owners reporting directly to the top executive. Eventually, this will cause conflicts and the horizontal reporting chart must evolve as the dominant way of doing business.

Process management is basically an internal operation. It is about how teams work, how they work together, and how the work gets done. Once the process owners understand the processes as they are done today, they can start to simplify, improve, and shorten throughput time.