Interview

What Is a Process and How Do We Identify It Correctly?

Bill Fox
Apr 7, 2021
9 min read

Chris Paris: ISO consultant and founder of Oxebridge Quality Resources International.

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WHAT IS YOUR BEST PROCESS IMPROVEMENT STRATEGY THAT HAS WORKED WELL FOR YOU?

Chris:  I think one of the biggest stumbling blocks for companies is identifying processes. It’s the thing that I found is most problematic for companies because when they have not properly identified their processes, they then go off in the wrong direction, measuring the wrong thing or measuring something that doesn’t give that much return of investment for their time and energy. It wasn’t something I thought of originally. I discovered this from working with 200+ ISO 9001 clients around the world. Many companies hadn’t identified their processes properly. By teaching them to understand that it doesn’t have to be that complicated, that they can identify these processes in whatever language it is that they are using in their company. By “language,” I mean the company’s common terminology, the jargon that they use.

Once they have identified the processes that are meaningful to them, they can come up with real-language ways to measure the processes and the things that are written in a simple way that could be understood by everybody in the company, in the language of the people that are using them.

I’ll give you a good example relative to purchasing. Oftentimes a product may fail in inspection, or heaven forbid the customer rejects it, and it comes back. We find out that the raw materials were bad, and you have to go back and find out that purchasing ordered the wrong materials. Though if you identify purchasing as a process, and your purchasing activity has an objective, and then you come up with a simple measure, you can catch the problems early. If I work in purchasing, what am I supposed to do? What are my goals?  Well, I’m supposed to buy good products, good materials. So then you measure it based on that simple, plain English sentence. If I’m supposed to purchase good materials, what can I do wrong that would prevent that? What am I supposed to do right? And then what measure do you put in place? It might be simple: measure purchase order errors or clerical errors. Another metric is inspecting incoming items.

Another process might be human resources. Their goal is to have good employees. It’s simple. But how do you make sure that you have good employees? It might be the turnover rate. It might be looking at exit interview data. It might be looking at employee feedback or employee performance.

Once you identify the processes, you can then come up with simple metrics based on what people do. That will improve those processes, which then results in a cascade effect upward to improve the quality of the delivery of product or service.

I’VE SEEN SO MANY ORGANIZATIONS GO OFF ON TANGENTS WHEN IT COMES TO METRICS. THEY JUST HAVEN’T TAKEN THE TIME TO DO WHAT YOU JUST SAID TO DO, AND THAT IS LOOKING AT WHAT THE GOAL IS AND THEN COMING UP WITH A METRIC THAT MEASURES IT.

Chris: I think you need to step back from the complicated consultant-speak of “process management” and recognize it just measures what you’re supposed to do. Whether it’s a two-person machine shop or a 300 person process management firm, everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing, at least theoretically. They may not be doing that; the problem’s with management, but they know what they should be doing.

Let’s reduce it further: “I’m supposed to deliver code that works. I’m supposed to make a product that does a certain thing. The car is supposed to go forward and not backward when I press the gas,” these kinds of simple things. Come up with ways to measure that, and then you see where your problems are.

I’ve seen clients whose eyes open up, and they say, “Wow!  We see real improvement by looking at it that way rather than coming in with a complicated or prepackaged method. When a third party comes in and says, “We’re going to put these canned processes in place,” and they are alien to the company, it is coming from the wrong direction.

WHAT IS THE BIGGEST MISUNDERSTANDING PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT PROCESS?

Chris: I think that they don’t know what a process is. There’s a good reason for this. This is not ignorance on anyone’s part because there’s a lot of disagreement on what a process is between industries. There’s a vast disagreement between what a process is in the chemical industry versus electronics, for example. And certainly, then you get into software development, everyone has a different opinion. There is no global definition of it.

ISO hasn’t defined it – they have developed a couple of definitions, but sometimes you look at their various documents, and even they disagree. If you don’t know what a process is, you can’t start to identify it, so you can’t measure it.

ISO 9001 has seen a dramatic drop in adoption since its “process approach” revision in 2000. Almost 40,000 US companies have dropped it since 2003. We’re not sure why, but I’d argue that hardcoding process management into the standard, without giving people the proper understanding of it, hurt the standard. It’s a shame because there are real, tangible benefits to be had if you get it right.

Companies hire consultants or buy into a program, et cetera, whatever it might be, and become slaves to that author’s vision of what a process is. If that doesn’t fit your company, you’re already again on the wrong track. The company has to define what it is, what a process is, not anyone else. They may need guidance, but that’s it.

In the ISO world, a process is whatever you want to measure. It’s an aspect, an activity of the company that you want to elevate to measuring something.

CAN YOU GIVE US A FEW EXAMPLES FROM THIS PERSPECTIVE?

Chris: Answering a phone, writing an email, parking your car, eating lunch… these are all processes by the technical definition, but we don’t want to measure them. What does the company want to elevate to that I call the “Big P” process, which would then be measured? That might be something like purchasing. It’s activities such as manufacturing or software development, those critical activities. Once they understand what a process is, then they get off on the right foot. But I have had these conversations for 15 years, and I always joke, if you put 10 quality professionals in a room and ask what a process is, you’ll get 11 definitions!

WHAT IS THE ISO PROCESS APPROACH? HOW SHOULD ORGANIZATIONS APPLY IT TO MAKE IT SIMPLE AND INTUITIVE?

Chris: Well, the ISO 9001 process approach is written in clause 4.1 of the ISO 9001 standard. It’s fairly simple, and the first thing it says is to identify your processes, which again is the trick that people have the hardest time with.

Once you have identified the processes, then you must understand their sequence and interaction. The problem here is that many companies get caught up in process maps, turtle diagrams, SIPOCs, etc. Sometimes these tools are useful, but there are many organizations where they are not useful.

One of my clients is SpaceX, the launch vehicle manufacturer, and we tried to reduce their activities to process maps, and they became massive spaghetti splashes on paper. They launch rockets so that you can imagine the complexity. It isn’t very respectful to reduce that to a graphic. Auditors were happy, but no one else was. We’re working to define things more intuitively without dumbing them down to the point of irrelevance.

You need to understand the sequence and the interaction only to the point where if something goes wrong, you have an idea of where to look for possible fixes or impacts. I recommend that companies don’t spend a lot of time mapping unless that’s in their culture already.

Once you have identified them, you must measure your processes. That means coming up with nice goals, metrics, and objectives—and then measuring them in real-time. Then apply corrective action when something goes wrong. And finally, apply resources wherever the process needs them.

That’s the ISO process approach. It identifies, measures, and applies corrective action when something goes wrong and then manages them with resources and understanding of how they work in the company. If you read the standard, the language is complicated, and it doesn’t read that simply, which is a shame, but that is all it’s saying.

I’M CURIOUS TO ASK YOU IS PROMPTED BY MY INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BERNARD, AUTHOR OF BUSINESS AT THE SPEED OF NOW. JOHN TALKED ABOUT MANAGING THE ENTERPRISE AS THE MOST CRITICAL PROCESS. WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON THAT?

Chris: That is a great question, and he’s on to something there. I haven’t read John’s book or interview, and I haven’t read anyone else mentioning this, but it fits in with my thinking. It’s a great point because management is a process, and when I go in to help companies identify their processes, we are talking about management. They usually look at me because they don’t understand. But management activities are processes in and of themselves.

One of the great metrics for measuring how well management is doing is simply making a table of all the other processes and whether they’ve hit their goals. Suppose X number of processes have not, measure that percentage. If too many objectives have not met their goals, then you can assume the management process is not effective. That’s a great, easy way to measure how well management is doing.

And then, of course, there are many other ways to measure management’s process performance. There are the usual things such as financials, but there may be legal compliance with regulations, statutory regulations, et cetera.  There are various things that management can do to measure itself, and it should. If the management is off the rails, then you’re only successful by luck. At some point, the luck’s going to run out. I’ve seen that where companies operated for years, and I have to be honest, I couldn’t believe how, and then later they did fell apart.

But if you’ve got that tight management process, like AEGIS.net or SpaceX, for example, they have solid management. The management is invested in measuring themselves, and as a result, everything else seems to run smoothly. It doesn’t mean that they are not without problems, but it just makes everything else easier. It requires self-criticism, being self-critical, which many companies and executives don’t like to do.

But any process measurement usually takes the emotion out of it. It’s a little bit sterile, and that’s a good thing because you measure numbers and things, so management should not be afraid of that.

WHAT IS UNIQUE AND SPECIAL ABOUT ISO 9001? WHY WOULD AN ORGANIZATION CHOOSE IT VERSUS ANOTHER APPROACH?

Chris: The answer for that is simple. It’s that ISO 9001 is just a great foundation for almost any of these other approaches. One is it has been around for a long time. ISO 9001 was adopted from an old 1950s US Department of Defense standard.

It’s universally accepted. All the countries in the world know what ISO 9001 is. The way it’s written provides the foundation for many other initiatives like CMMI, Lean, Six Sigma, and various other ISO standards for information, security management, et cetera.

ISO 9001 provides that basic structure. If a company is looking to implement CMMI, for example, a great way to start implementing ISO 9001, later when they implement CMMI, or if they choose something else, they have already got the foundation in place they don’t have to copy. If a company starts with an initiative, like CMMI first, and then they have to put in something else, they will have to almost start from scratch because there’s no foundation. ISO 9001 is like a table that you could place these other initiatives on top of.

One thing is, of course, certification. Many of these initiatives don’t offer certification. ISO 9001 offers that. You have an option to be recognized by a third party under an internationally accredited scheme, which, let’s face it, gives you a marketing advantage. You can implement Six Sigma or Lean Manufacturing, but no one is going to recognize that. You can’t put a certificate on the wall that has any meaning to it. With ISO 9001, you can.

A BIG TOPIC THESE DAYS IS SCALING AGILE TO THE ENTERPRISE BECAUSE IT’S A TEAM-BASED METHODOLOGY.  WHEN YOU TRY TO SCALE IT ACROSS THE ENTERPRISE, YOU RUN INTO MANY CHALLENGES – DOES ISO 9001 HELP?

Chris: I think it does, except that it depends on the implementation method, and maybe the trainer, consultant, or whoever the company might be getting their ISO 9001 education from. Because I’ll be honest with you, ISO 9001 suffers from the same thing. Routinely, I’ll go into a company that has already implemented, and I see too much bulk. I’ll go into a company that may have 10 employees, and I’ll see systems in place that were clearly borrowed from Honeywell or some other massive. And they don’t fit. The company didn’t know to scale. So I would say that ISO 9001, when adopted properly, is scalable. The infrastructure that’s in place right now, the consultancy auditors, the trainers out there, need to educate themselves more on dialing down those requirements and not imposing big corporation ISO implementations on small companies. We’re facing the same problem as Agile.

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