Monday, May 31, 2010

How evolved are your processes?

Everything in life is evolving. Our business processes are no different. In order to stay competitive in today’s changing marketplace, we need processes that consistently deliver products/services that delight our customers. I’ve identified and outlined four distinct phases of process evolution. Each phase represents an advanced state of maturity which leads to higher levels of quality and satisfaction for customers.

Phase 1: Stone Age
The stone age of process evolution is a phase where few things are recorded or written down. Work information is treated like “tribal knowledge”, which is shared informally across the enterprise. Keep in mind; this isn’t a commentary regarding the quality or efficiency of a process. For example, an ideal method for hunting buffalo may have been developed and perfected, but it existed only as a stored memory in someone’s head. Regardless of how well they are designed, Stone Age processes are very difficult to share, standardize, and retain.

Phase 2: Dark Age
The dark age of process evolution is an environment where most work is recorded, but lacks structure and visibility. The effort to document business processes has progressed, but exists mainly in departmental or functional silos. There is typically a lack of consistency, uniformity, and linkage across the business. Work instructions are disconnected from the key inputs/outputs of core enterprise processes. Dark Age processes are useful, but can be very difficult to identify, access, maintain, and control.

Phase 3: Industrial Age
The industrial age of process evolution is a state of high organization, visibility, and control. All enterprise processes have been identified, numerically catalogued, and assigned owners. There is a clear hierarchy between subordinate processes, procedures, and work instructions. The linkage of inputs to outputs is clear and accessible to any member of the organization. All documentation is uniformly maintained and controlled in accordance with international standards. Industrial Age processes are essential to reduce variation and consistently meet customer requirements.

Phase 4: Technology Age
The technology age of process evolution is the point where all information is fully integrated into the actual work flow system. The utilization of work flow technology delivers automated sequencing of process steps, decision trees, if/then routing, and error-proof outputs. Information that is used to guide work is no longer referenced as a separate document. Rather, it is now dynamically coded into the infrastructure itself. The process is the system! Metrics are generated automatically and can be used to quickly diagnose problems. Technology Age processes can delivery 6σ quality at Lean speed.

So how evolved are your processes? In my experience, most organizations exist somewhere between phases 2 and 3. If that’s the case for you, start by doing a complete inventory to identify all corporate processes and supporting documentation. It is nearly impossible to “leapfrog” any of the evolutionary phases. You need to write things down before you can create standardized documentation. And you need everything supremely organized before you start the work of coding work flow systems. There is good news though: progress can be quick and efficient if a concerted effort is made across the business. We must all evolve to survive!

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