Thoughts on how we approach process in the workplace.
In my experience, good processes and systems of internal control, play an integral role in helping a business achieve its goals. When done right, they often seem to operate effortlessly. However, I’ve always found implementing them to be much more difficult than I’d like to admit.
While processes and controls in a large organisation are often entrenched institutions, the systematisation of a small business is usually a very new challenge and one that comes with problems that are often unique to the entity.
When you’re starting out, one or two individuals can have their eye on everything, all the time. However, as your business grows and takes on more employees, stakeholders and customers, this becomes increasingly taxing and difficult to maintain. Processes and controls, in one form or another, become necessary to ensure consistency, quality control, visibility and alignment, throughout your business or organisation. Unfortunately, however, there is often a mismatch between what we expect from a good process and what processes are actually good for. This mismatch can result in very underwhelming results, often leaving you wondering what went wrong.
When implementing processes, it’s important to ask yourself how the process could fail. Considering all the ‘what-if’ scenarios is vital to designing a good process, which achieves its objectives effectively and efficiently. In doing so, it’s always best to be completely honest with oneself about a few things — the first of which is this:
Processes and controls are good at mitigating error but they, alone, won’t make you great.
Controls and processes are commonly put in place to mitigate risks and avoid error. Unfortunately, on their own, they don’t do much to make your services and products excellent.
Automated tests might pick up errors in the code that developers write, but they don’t ensure you’re building the product your customer needs. Financial reconciliations avoid errors in your reports and ledgers, but they don’t fundamentally drive better financial performance. Quality assurance procedures on the factory floor ensure products meet a minimum standard, but they don’t drive product excellence and innovation.
These are all useful and, indeed, necessary tools — but they’re mostly aimed at removing errors as opposed to driving improvement. A process isn’t a person, as such, it doesn’t have any context or insight into things like user requirements or organisational goals. What we get out of the process over time will inevitably tend towards the minimum requirements we’ve defined.
To try and counter this, our processes and controls often become more elaborate and complicated, and our checklists get longer and longer. Once on this path, it’s very easy to end up at a point where the amount of time and energy spent on these activities is proportionally too high when compared to the actual value they create.
To this end, when designing processes and controls one needs to:
- Understand the specific purpose of the process and the role it plays in an organisation.
- Separate the activities which lend themselves to being systematised from those which are fundamentally driven by, and require, people, insight and skills. Be clear on the difference.
- Never use processes as a substitute for working hard.
Implementing good processes can be tricky but being clear on these three things can go a long way to making it less so.
In my next post, I’ll look at some of the areas where process is commonly treated as a substitute for more abstract principles like judgement and integrity and why this can be damaging.
Jared Davies Coleman is a Chartered Accountant and Leadership Representative at Nona Creative — a full-service digital studio in Woodstock, Cape Town.