What if “process” is one of those concepts from manual work a.k.a. manufacturing that has no place or value in knowledge work? What if “process” is a relatively very poor means (strategy) for getting everyone’s needs met in knowledge work organisations?
What Do We Mean By Process?
“Process” can mean so many different things, to different people. I’ll use the CMMI-style definition as a basis:
“Process: A set of activities, methods, practices, and transformations that people use to develop and maintain [software] systems and associated products.”
In the context of this post, I’m mainly talking about some kind of more or less defined process, somewhat analogous to CMMI Maturity Level 3 (ML3). Generally, I’m talking here about “activities, methods, practices, and transformations” which are defined by some people, and more or less mandated for all people in a team, group or organisation to follow.
Manufacturing seems to find value in “process” because of the need to reduce variation. When the goal is to produce millions of identical items, any variation is undesirable.
In collaborative knowledge-work, is variation our enemy, or our friend?
What is the flawed assumption that is at the root of the conflict here?
Is all knowledge-work alike? Is it homogeneous?
What if there are aspects of e.g. software development that could benefit from a smidgeon of “process”, and some aspects where “process” is a major drag?
Standard Work and Compliance
Even though Ohno made the distinction between “standard work” and compliance to a standardised process, this distinction seems lost on most organisations that place their faith in “process”. People are expected to do the work, not as they find most effective, but as the process specifies. And often, too, little thought is given to how to continually adapt the (standardised) process to keep it effectively aligned to changing conditions.
Typically, then, standardised processes drift away from alignment and effectiveness, toward irrelevance, annoyance, and increasing ineffectiveness.
If all we have is the idea of process then can we ever see improvement as anything other than “process improvement”?
Aside: This is the origin of the term “Rightshifting” – my attempt to disassociate ends i.e. improvement from means e.g. process.
And if process has no value, then process improvement, however many £thousands or £millions we spend on it, has no value either.
If we attribute performance, productivity to process, and we want more performance and productivity, then naturally we’ll look to improve the process. What if other factors are actually at the root of performance and productivity in knowledge work?
We’d look pretty silly ploughing effort and resources into process improvement then, wouldn’t we?
In essence, process thinking is a throwback to Taylor’s Scientific Management, and the idea that workers should simply work and e.g. managers should have absolute dominion over how the work is done. Again, this may have been a sound idea when many manual workers were illiterate and poor local language speakers. And when managers and supervisors knew the work much better than their workers. In today’s knowledge-work organisations, exactly the opposite conditions pertain.
Today’s knowledge workers, then, can only feel frustrated and alienated when unable to work in ways they find effective. Inevitably, this leads to disengagement, low morale, stress, lower cognitive function, learned helplessness, and other undesirable psychological states.