It Requires Effort to Keep Business Processes SimpleMay 5, 2020
The key to maintaining a simple process is to build it with longevity in mind. Simplicity is often a difficult goal to reach. As humans, we generally aim to keep things as simple as possible despite the tendency to make them more complicated than necessary. When presented with information, it is our nature to synthesize what is before us, understand the details and consider all options before doing even the smallest thing. Try as we might, our propensity for detail and thoroughness naturally moves us toward complicated processes. The effort required to protect simplicity is substantial and simple processes – those which can easily be remembered, understood, implemented and measured – will, over time become complicated.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of working directly with a highly skilled and technical team of software engineers. Our goal was to create a very simple process that we could use to govern all the work that we did together. It took months of meetings, proofs of concept and individual discussions to get the team to buy into the idea of simplicity. It took another few months for us to agree upon a simple process at a high level. After much work, we agreed that the simplest process for us was a three-step procedure in which work could be received, processed, and delivered. We described what was necessary to receive work in the first step, what was required in order to process the work and that which was needed to deliver the work upon completion.
The end result was a process that could easily be taught and learned. The system we developed was repeatable, measurable and easy to understand. It was surprisingly flexible too. The only thing left was for the team to determine how to measure the efficiency and effectiveness of this new process. It would take another three weeks to identify the metrics.
At the end of the three weeks, I met with the team and they informed me that they had not only identified the key metrics, but they had fined tuned the process to make it better and more comprehensive. They wanted to leave no stone unturned so they added a number of sub-steps to each of the three major steps. While the sub-steps did provide process users with more detailed instructions that were very specific to our particular type of work, the additional steps also complicated the process and made it quite tedious. Remember, the initial goal was to create a simple process.
It my experience, engineers want to know as much detail as possible about their work. Very often, the disadvantage of such thinking is that it prevents the creation of simple processes that can be easily executed and maintained. In our case, even the smallest change to our process flow would require subsequent steps to be updated as well. The team ended up generating more than fifty key metrics to measure the effectiveness of the formerly simple process. With so many points to consider, the process became very difficult to maintain and more importantly, it was very difficult to understand. In the course of three weeks, our simple process had degraded into a complex series of steps that no one was going to use. Therefore, it was back to the drawing board.
It took another two weeks to convince the team to revisit the previous process. Interestingly, the original process has been in place now for almost 15 years and has withstood organizational changes, management changes, mergers, acquisitions and changes to the team that put the system into place. The process itself is still quite simple and has only gone through minor changes, demonstrating its flexibility.
A good process – whether simple or complex – can withstand change. In creating a simple process, team leaders, project managers and organizational leaders have to guard against the temptation to “fine tune” procedures with small enhancements that can, over time, add unnecessary steps to a process that is already built to properly serve its intended purpose. Leaders can prevent processes from becoming too complicated by asking the following questions:
- Is the recommended change absolutely necessary?
- Will the change be used by all users of the existing process?
- Will the change help make the process even easier to use, maintain and support?
If the answer to any one of the questions above is “no,” the process change should not be implemented. It is easy to complicate a process and difficult to protect simplicity. However, a smart, simple workflow that is repeatable, measurable and flexible is well worth the effort for the life of the process.