I have often heard consultants, colleagues, corporate executives and nonprofit leaders complain that their organization/client “doesn’t have a process for xyz.” I used to buy right into it, nodding along in agreement. Until reality hit me while watching customers come and go as a CEO explained to me that they have “no processes for anything.” Someone must be doing something, right?
How processes get overlooked
We often have a strict definition for what constitutes a process, which prevents us from seeing how things really get done. In an organization of any size, if something is getting done–regardless of quality or pace–there’s a process. You’re only ever codifying (writing it down and publishing it), replacing, or improving it.
If your business is operating, there’s a process. Ignoring that process because it’s ineffective or not documented properly means that the “solution” may not ultimately support how things really work. And we all know what that means–quiet head nods during the rollout…a few weeks of compliance…then back to business as usual when it “doesn’t work” or “slows things down.”
Three ways to see “invisible” processes
So how can you learn to identify the processes that the “experts” miss? Here are a few approaches that have worked for me.
Look for the one-person processes
In most functioning organizations that say they need a new process, there’s an individual that keeps things going. They can be seen as the “hero” or the “bottleneck” depending on a number of factors, but that person is doing something to keep everything together. The first step here is to identify that person and spend time understanding the steps they take (for better or worse) to get their work done. Write those steps down and move on to diagnosing the issues with that process. It could be a collaboration and communication issue, or it could be something more complex. But now you have a relevant starting point that incorporates how the business really works. So, your solution is more likely to work with the existing processes surrounding it.
Follow the paper trail
In larger organizations, it is common for various departments to have to “sign off” on various aspects of the business. Someone in shipping/receiving signs off on the materials, someone from production signs off on the amount of product made on their shift, someone from marketing/sales signs off on the in-market performance data. These steps can happen without a formal process, but they can’t happen without a process of some kind. To find it, start with the people who sign off at each step. Understand what they look for before approval, then talk to the people who are responsible for those things. Outline the steps they take to get those approvals and you’ve got a viable starting point for process improvement.
Let the wheels fall off
Sometimes the fastest, most effective way to identify a process that’s hard to see is to put stress on it. Choose a day to increase production targets; reassign employees to different teams for a week; go from electronic approvals to paper signatures for a few production cycles; require formal approvals to a cross-functional project team. These are examples of controlled experiments that help expose the real process before supplier issues, unexpected orders, or new regulatory requirements do.
Why these processes matter
If you don’t understand how things really work, your solution will either be structurally irrelevant (won’t plug into the broader organization’s way of doing things) or completely bypassed once you leave the room (they’ll just keep doing it the old way).
To fix the process, you must be able to see it. And the hardest thing in the world to see is something you’re not looking for and don’t believe exists.
There is always a process. Find it first, then write it down, then replace or improve it.