Process and Productivity: Finding the Right Balance

Many organizations struggle with how much process to put into place versus “letting people do their thing.” There are a number of perspectives to consider.

Quality legend W. Edwards Deming said, “If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.” My wife used to manage Deming’s events, so I had the pleasure of meeting him a number of times and took a tour of his TQM principles in action on the USS John F. Kennedy. A consistent theme of his is that people don’t fail, systems do.

Before improving a process, you have to have a defined process to begin with. Thus, key business functions need to be defined in terms of functional processes along with inputs and outputs of each. Then improvements can be made, either using Deming’s “Plan-Do-Check-Act” method, Six Sigma, or other process improvement approaches.

But where do we draw the line between having defined and measured processes and creating an environment where people can flourish in an empowered fashion? After all, as highlighted in this Fast Company article on 5 Ways Process is Killing Your Productivity, managers can take it a bit too far, for example:

  • Damaging trust and bogging down progress with approval steps
  • Focusing on process over people
  • Excessive meetings (especially recurring ones) to “keep things on track”
  • Empty jargon-filled slogans and mission statements
  • Micromanaging and filtering new idea

One way to help ensure the right level of process and standardization is to engage people in creating it. Even the late Peter Scholtes, author of The Team Building Handbook and standardization proponent advised, “By involving people in the standardization of work, we can remove some of the oppressiveness of it. People are less likely to balk at standards they have devised.” He went on to say, “We need not standardize everything.”

As for process vs. productivity, Fons Trompenaars, my favorite author on cross-cultural communication (his book, “Did the Pedestrian Die” is a landmark achievement in that area), advises taking a “through/through” approach when trying to balance two seemingly opposite agendas. Instead of focusing on one or the other, think how you can improve productivity “through” process improvements, and how you can improve processes “through” a greater focus on productivity. it’s not “either/or” and it’s not even “and/and.” It’s “through/through.”

In other words, always consider the people perspective when defining processes, and find ways to improve processes to boost productivity and reduce barriers.  For more on this, I expand on this and other common leadership dilemmas in my book, Managing the Grey Areas.

Meanwhile, whether you’re instituting processes for resource management, project management, portfolio management, or anything, for that matter, consider the following points:

  • Before you improve a process, you need to define one
  • Keep it simple, and consider the people aspect
  • Engage people in defining the process and identifying two or three key measures of success
  • Use checklists instead of approvals where possible
  • When balancing two seemingly opposite perspectives (e.g., process vs. productivity), try a “through/through” approach to incorporate both perspectives
  • Once a process is defined, use Plan-Do-Check-Act or Six Sigma’s DMAIC model to improve specific areas as needed

Author Subhir Chowdhhury summed it up nicely when he said, “Quality combines people power and process power.”

Jerry Manas

Jerry Manas

Jerry is the bestselling author of The Resource Management and Capacity Planning Handbook, Napoleon on Project Management, and more. At PDWare, Jerry helps clients improve strategy execution through tools and processes that align people and work with organizational priorities. Connect with Jerry on Twitter and LinkedIn

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