The Importance of Process

Photo of Chris Bradbury

We’re in the “dog days” of summer and that can only mean two things: Popsicles and Caiman planning for a new fiscal year! The latter was a great opportunity to reflect upon what worked well and what changes we want to make to achieve our near and mid-term goals. Caiman is a small but growing regional consulting firm specializing in the three PMs (Program, Project, and Product Management) as well as advisory and analysis services. Recently, we’ve had success in growing by expanding outside of our marquee client. This exciting growth has underscored the need for us to be more mindful of the processes that we define and deploy as we design our firm’s growth strategy. This is especially important given the new team members we have added recently. Many of us who have been at Caiman for many years have evolved along with the processes (or vice versa) and are comfortable with the Caiman way of doing things. However, if the standard operating procedures are not clear to new team members, then they will be unlikely to follow them and more likely to develop their own way of doing things. 

A recent example that Caiman encountered was a CRM deployment. CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is an enabling technology that helps organizations of all size manage their customer interactions efficiently. When developing training on any sort of technology or tool, it is easy to focus on only one “how” - in this case, “how to use the tool?” - and completely overlook the question “how does the tool fit into (or modify) the process?”. It’s obvious that enterprise-wide systems and other complex deployments clearly require a lot of documentation (e.g. technical manuals, installation and user’s guides, supportability plans, etc.). Is it obvious that processes have the same requirements - even for the simplest process? The documentation doesn’t have to be some infinitely-pondered thought exercise that is codified in a tome. Rather, simple processes that provide some flexibility can be highly successful. That is, only if the steps are clear to everyone (and clearly documented). Examples abound from database marketing to SAP implementations.

When people think of process, they tend to think of Operations and, if they were to plot major business functional areas on a continuum including Branding, would put the two at the opposite ends of the spectrum. However, process and brand are tightly coupled. Researchers at the University of Portland have postulated that process loss may lead to brand switching. Take, for example, the lack of a well-defined (and communicated) process around hiring. Deciding to hire an employee is a big decision as it takes an investment of time, effort, and (to some degree) emotion by both parties. If candidates face inconsistencies it might not seem like a big deal since every candidate will have a uniquely personal experience anyway. But if people are left in the dark about their status or some steps aren’t followed, candidates could go away with a bad impression of the company. The company loses a potential hire, which not only results in wasted time and effort, but a slightly impaired brand. While other dramatic causes for brand impairment make headlines, such as Toyota’s quality problems or an oil spill, process-driven brand impairments are usually unnoticed but have small negative impacts that are like “death by 1,000 cuts.” 

Bad process is better than no process. While most readers will agree that processes are important, some may get caught up in the fear they may implement the wrong process. Bear in mind that a well-documented, albeit flawed, process is much better than having no process where things “just work themselves out.” In the former case, the documentation will often lead to analysis and eventual improvement; whereas in the latter case, it is harder to analyze and not clear to management that anything needs to be improved. Let’s look at the flipside of that point.

If your business has been doing the same things over and over again and getting the same results – congratulations! Not only do you have a process, but it is a consistent one. Many businesses do this unintentionally, and furthermore, are frustrated because they wanted to get different results (e.g. topline growth, expanded market share). If that sounds familiar, take heart because you are closer than you may realize. While it’s true that the blended average of your efforts has gotten you to this point, there are likely some good and some bad outcomes or experiences. Eliminating the bad and enhancing the good is a great path forward. Here are some quick steps we suggest you try.  First, you need to get intentional. This includes documenting the process that you currently follow. Next, you need to analyze the process to understand the impacts the process has and determine whether that was intended. Then, you can improve the process to achieve your aims. Finally, and most importantly, remember to monitor and adjust the process as needed. While a one-time fix is a great improvement, having a process for handling processes can be a competitive advantage. 

When implementing or improving processes, don’t focus solely on the technology and overlook the people and change management aspect. Having buy-in from all stakeholders, especially subordinates, is critically important to the success of process formation and improvement. After all, they will likely be involved in or implementing the process. 

If all of this sounds like a challenge and a potential disruption to your business, you’re not alone. According to Gartner research, approximately 80% of executives described their company’s business process management skill as “beginner” level. Fortunately, Caiman consultants have depth in process analysis and improvement across a breadth of industries. If you want to improve your business, start by asking “what’s the process?”.