Many processes are like automatons. They wake up in the morning, brush their teeth, take the train to work and start toiling . For four hours they check their emails, put out fires and curse the work they do. Then, finally, it’s time for a lunch break. They grab something to eat, read the latest news, check Facebook and begin to feel sad about going back for their afternoon session at work. They head back to the desk, work for four more hours, take the train  home and watch TV until going to sleep.

slumped desk Photo courtesy of 東京へ行きましょう

This sounds almost like a recap of the old movie Trainspotting. There’s no beat in their lives. There’s no passion or drive! Maybe you thought I was talking about people and not about processes? Perhaps, perhaps… My question is how can you make sure your business is not run by such brain-dead processes?

“Living Process” is a term that means many different things to many different people. It probably doesn’t mean anything to some people, either. How deep of a philosophical discussion should we have? Can processes be alive? Can processes “be?” I still remember those sweat pearls forming on my forehead while taking my philosophy exams as part of my doctorate studies. I’m not going to be so cruel and put you through that same pain…you’re welcome!

“Processes become something that could be considered alive. They become the people who are behind the processes.”

NLP holds that “the map is not the territory.” Basically, this means that individual people do not have access to absolute knowledge of reality, but in fact only have access to a set of beliefs they have built up over time, about reality. So, reality is what we believe it to be. In the same way, processes may not be the reality of things occurring in business in real life.

When discussing processes, I am referring to all the work that is done in an organization to produce successful customer outcomes (i.e. value to customers). You can map processes — i.e., how work is done. You can optimize processes — i.e., how people work. In the same way that process maps may not represent reality accurately, organizational charts may not represent the real power structure of a company.

Maybe if we tie all these things together and say that processes comprise all the work people do in the organizations to generate value to customers, processes become something that could be considered alive.  They become the people who are behind the processes.

Well, how about factories then? For example, the car factories that I have done several process projects for have thousands of robots guided by software. When you look at those robots working, you could almost think they are alive and working as part of a manufacturing process. But since those robots cannot think for themselves, my interpretation is that the people behind those robots have made them “alive” through their programming.

welding robot Photo courtesy of Haukur Herbertsson

What happens if you take the people and robots out of the process? Is there a living process even left?

I don’t think so. The lifeblood of processes are the actors that participate in them. Since processes equate to the work that turns inputs into outputs, I would like to think that processes are ways to create outcomes and enable something great to happen for our customers.

How can you know whether your processes are automatons, executing brainless tasks, or something living that creates positive energy in the world and makes this place better to live for all of us? Don’t worry, I won’t be going into any new age stuff or founding new BPM religions. But I will offer some thoughts you can use to evaluate how “alive” your processes are.

Processes are formed from the work people do to create value. To see whether the processes are alive, we need to take it down to its main components. Let’s start with employees. How are they doing in your organization? Do you hear a lot of complaints, gossips, ill will, sick leaves and such? Are people enthusiastic about the business you do and are they happy to come to work in the morning (even on Mondays)? If yes, that part of processes may be alive. If not, then you need to go back to your leadership and find the problems and solve them.

The second main aspect of living processes is the work within the processes. People and machines execute those tasks, but it doesn’t mean those tasks are living. Maybe they are relics left by the previous generation. Maybe they are something that was alive before the “best before” date, which passed years ago.

There are many ways to kill good work: to not plan it properly, to not execute it properly, to not measure it properly, to not lead it properly, and so on. To evaluate whether your work practices are alive, first understand how they perform today against the customer needs, and then plan how they should work. To be “alive”, they need to change constantly for higher value and better fit for customers.

That leads us to the most important aspect of living processes: the customers. Without customers your processes will be dead. Why? If you are highly motivated in your own life, you will work hard to make things happen. Same goes for processes, and customers create the motivation to work hard to get things right. In the business world, customers pay for  value from you, through your processes. If you work for government or non-profit organizations, then your processes are aligned to add value to someone (maybe to help hungry people, or managers who lost their best years running brain-dead processes).

You can test whether your processes are living by evaluating how people, work and your customers are doing. These three cornerstones of living processes can help generate positive business results. We have seen double-digit improvements in revenue, customer satisfaction and employee engagement through alignment of these aspects.

Don’t let your processes wander around like mindless, purposeless automatons. Revive them by determining the highest value your customers are seeking from your business and execute on these priorities by motivating employees with best-in-class work practices.

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