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December 03, 2005

The Backlash to Process

It was inevitable, I suppose. After several decades of largely positive palaver about the power of process, a backlash is beginning to emerge. Several journalists and bloggers have begun to argue that process is injurious to organizational health and innovation.

Erin White of the Wall Street Journal, for example, reported on September 19, 2005 that companies are beginning to become disenchanted with Six Sigma and process management—particularly where innovation and new product development processes are concerned.

On John Hagel’s blog, he and John Seely Brown argue that "for the past couple of decades, the primary focus of IT investment in the enterprise has been to standardize and automate business processes. Over the next couple of decades, the real opportunity will be to amplify practices by supporting collaboration on demand – helping people both within and across enterprises to connect more flexibly and richly with each other around real business needs."

In a somewhat silly blog entry entitled “The End of Process,” Socialtext's Ross Mayfield argues that, “Because of constant change in our environment, processes are outdated the immediately after they are designed (sic, but you get the idea).” He goes on to say that connected knowledge workers can simply organize their own groups and processes at will.

First let me say that the devotees of process don’t have much to fear.

Process isn’t going away, at least for the vast majority of situations to which it’s been applied. For any sort of structured work activity, processes are the key to efficiency, quality, and efficient use of IT. For business activities like manufacturing, order management, accounting, and customer service, to eschew process is to eschew performance.

But the process malcontents do have a purpose and a point. It’s actually healthy to have a debate about how much process orientation to have in business, and where it should be applied. The idea that the same approaches to process management worked well for all businesses and all activities within them was never a good one. Of course, it’s just as nutty to argue that we don’t need processes at all as it was to argue that process was good for everything. The hard-core “enterprise engineers” and the advocates of self-organizing work are equally unhelpful.

The backlash to process generally focuses on the negative implications for innovation. This is both wrong and valid. It’s wrong when applied to process innovation. Companies that do process management right can certainly incorporate opportunities for participation by those who do the work, and continuous innovation in the process. Just ask Toyota, which has mastered both processes and process innovation.

But process critics are valid when the focus their attack on applying process to product and service innovations. We can call these activities processes, and we can try to impose structure on them. But innovation activities in business will always be less structured than other business domains, and harder to measure and automate. If we impose too much of a process orientation on these activities and people, we’ll either drive down the level of innovation or get frustrated. Cisco, for example, is a very process-oriented firm, but it has relaxed some of its orientation to process in its new product development activities.

The key to establishing a balance, as John Seely Brown and several of his former colleagues at Xerox PARC have argued for a while, is to mix process with practice. Process is an abstract structure for how work should ideally be done; practice is the day-to-day way in which work is actually done. Process involves respect for methods, measures, and organizational attempts at improvement; practice involves respect for smart people and localized decisionmaking. Process without practice is unrealistic; practice without process is chaotic.

In structured business activities such as manufacturing, we need more process and less practice; in less structured knowledge work domains like innovation, we simply need less process and more practice. To admit that a mixture is necessary, and to work at determining the appropriate balance, is the only reasonable approach.

Extreme arguments in either direction are counterproductive at best.

Posted by Tom Davenport on December 3, 2005 04:45 PM | Permalink

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Tracked on December 4, 2005 12:02 AM


I fully support and have been promoting / writing about the balance of process and practice as promoted by John Sealy Brown and Tom. Though I have to admit, I always feel like I'm really appealing to the process centric people to leave some room for practice, rather than the other way around. When processes are poorly designed, practices will naturally and often invisibly fill in the gaps, unbeknown to the executives who are often fooled by an illusion that the "process is working well". Its easy to test...just give the process manual to a new group of workers, while not allowing them to talk with "practiced" staff and see how much they struggle.

Process solutions are very seductive, through the logic with which they can be presented and the tangible outcomes that they can promise. But I have yet to see processes naturally fill in for gaps in knowledge or good practice....its usually very hard work, as those that tried to build expert systems discoverd (which includes myself).

I believe process as a framework for how work could ideally be done is fine as long as managers have an acceptance that creative humans need time to talk, to debate, adapt the work practices to best achieve process aims.

The promotion of process as "prescription" I feel is particularly dangerous. If indeed a prescription is possible then machines, rather than humans should be executing them.

Posted by: Laurence Lock Lee | December 11, 2005 08:48 PM

I think this is the deal - a process is only good enough if you are absoloutely certain as to what makes your organization excel. This is not trivial at all. Efficiency, standardization - these concepts are used to describe roads leading to excellence, but it is not always so. In fact, there are not so many goals in an organization that managers can really tell how they're reached. For manufacturing it is quite easy. But for customer service?
We use processes not in order to excel, but in order to avoid failures. It is only our wishful thinking that processes lead to excellence.

Posted by: omer taran | December 6, 2005 12:48 AM

Counterproductive? Maybe. Fun? Certainly, for some.

From the process perspective, the key is often to develop "living" processes - that are adaptable to change - and that also give opportunities for process workers to have input and a sense of engagement (which is what Toyota did).

Too often, processes get fossilised soon after design - dead on arrival.

Tom - in all your travels & research, what are the best techniques you've seen for avoiding DOA processes?

Posted by: Matt Moore | December 4, 2005 03:36 AM

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