man drawing procedure diagram


Back in the days when I was active in IIE, I used to talk to Kevin McManus all the time. These days, it is all I can do to follow his great articles on Linked In Pulse. I want to share his latest one on procedures. Kevin shares some of the history of procedures and how they have evolved over the decades.

My Take

In my experience, we have a love/hate relationship with procedures. We recognize that they have major benefits.

  • They help us standardize processes. Both for the way we do it ourselves each time and among many people doing the same process. This ensures consistency, ts are crossed, is are dotted, things don’t slip through gaps.
  • They help us evaluate processes. If we know how a process should be done, we can check to see if it is done correctly and completely. If we know what the results should look like, we can verify that they do.
  • They help us evaluate personnel. If we know the time required to complete a process, we can measure if it was. And at what level of quality.
  • They help us reduce cognitive load. If you can refer back to a process description, you don’t need to remember all the steps. You don’t need to remember decision branch points.
  • They help us train new employees. All we need to do is show them the documentation and then check back in a couple of cycles.

But we also recognize they have serious limitations too.

  • They reduce innovation by forcing a process to be done the same way each time.
  • They are not resilient when circumstances don’t fit the standard.
  • They are not agile when the world changes around us.
  • They can’t accommodate special requests from customers.

There are also behavioral challenges.

  • When a procedure doesn’t match reality, employees are forced to choose between breaking the rules or doing a poor job. We see workarounds crop up all over in domains such as health care (but not aerospace).
  • They force employees to suppress their creativity, often at the expense of intrinsic motivation for the job.

We can try to make procedures longer. We can try to add more contingency branching points to them. We can apply a tight-loose-tight management that is recommended for agile systems. But still, many of these challenges remain.

Your Turn

What is your experience with procedures? Have you found any good solutions for the challenges listed here. Or other challenges you can share?

Let us know.

Image Credit: Sweet Process

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