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A Lean process is the bread and butter of continuous improvement. Processes are the series of linked actions (or steps, tasks, activities, operations, etc) performed to reach a specific outcome.

Processes take randomness and bring it to order. Imagine what would happen if nobody followed a process when driving. No process for merging, pulling into traffic, or parking. There would be chaos. Imagine that when getting ready for work in the morning, there were no processes in your home. Clothes would have never gotten into your closet. You might not have hot water, because the bills would not have been paid. The list goes on and on.

In areas where the returns are the greatest or the risks are the highest, people tend to gravitate to formal processes without much complaint. People love the thought of their surgeons having a well-defined system for keeping track of all the sponges and instruments, and they like that the pilot of their plane follows a process to prepare the cockpit for a safe takeoff.

At times where people want to have flexibility, though, or when the benefit is not high, they tend to following loosely defined processes. Most people don’t write out a process for loading the car on a vacation, for example, because it is not done frequently and the cost of a mistake is minimal. People also tend to be fairly unstructured when they do creative actions, such as drawing pictures.

People especially like to this flexibility when the process is based on a human to human exchange, such as the process of a real estate agent finding a home for a person.

Don’t confuse a lack of linearity (step A, then step B, and so on), though, with a lack of a process. Everything is governed by a process, even if it seems like there is a lot of variation in it. For example, engineering is full of processes, from getting the computer arranged for a day of design work, to doing research, to posting drawings.

Somewhere along the way, though, despite the common use of the term ‘creative process’, people have come to believe that creativity cannot be bounded by structure. But time and time again, these creative areas have been improved by adding moe formality to the process.

Structure does not always mean rigidity. Some processes are loosely defined. They reduce variation, rather than eliminate it. Think of when you call customer service on the phone. The service representative cannot control your side of the conversation, but they can guide you, ask specific questions, and can certainly follow a process about how to respond. As a rule of thumb, the more variation in inputs, the more decision points there will be in the process. And human beings have more variation in them than widgets do.

In the most vanilla form that people think about, though, a process standardizes the production of a physical item. The goal of the process is to create a finished product that meets its specs. Often, the process is documented with Standard Work. These steps may need further clarification, which can be accomplished with things like written procedures, or work instructions. They are the detailed ‘how to’ of the process step.

One common problem you might encounter is in selecting the appropriate level of detail for the steps of a process. Too much detail is generally better than not enough detail, but there is a point at which there is little or no incremental gain from being more precise.

Why is documenting a process important? It provides consistency in both the time a step takes and the quality it delivers. Here’s an example: Imagine you are installing four wheels on a chassis for some piece of equipment. Suppose each wheel is attached with five lug nuts. The process might dictate a specific sequence of wheels, as well as the pattern to tighten the bolts. Is this necessary? The sequence of the wheels might make a difference in the time the process takes; the sequence of the bolt might have an impact on how the wheel seats itself on the hub, preventing a quality issue.

Generally, there will be a difference between the output of two different ways to perform a process. On rare occasions, there will not be. Even when it doesn’t matter, though, define a process. It provides a basis for improvement, and keeps people used to following specific methods. Having the exact same results, though, is seldom the case. In most cases, the choice of process does matter, and one way is the best known way. Document that one.

Settling on a single process seems to be most difficult in an office. Processes in office environments exist, but unfortunately, many are kept in people’s heads. And often, the process in each person’s head is unique. Do what you can to document these processes whenever possible. One very effective tool for this is the process flowchart. Once the processes are documented, they can be more easily compared and improved.

One source of resistance that people have in using a process in an administrative process is the number of choices that they have to make in an office process. A manufacturing process tends to be linear. An office process tends to look more like a tree, with each choice branching out into additional choices (and even on occasion doubling back on itself!). A call for support might start with determining whether the call is technical support, or order support, then whether the customer is in the database, and so on. Each result drives another choice. Guess what-this is still a process.

It is also EXACTLY what a computer does with very precise, reliable results. The process is programmed in, and at each input point, the computer makes a decision in a consistent fashion (based on the programming), resulting in the same output. Obviously, for people there is not as much structure, but the principle is the same.

Keep these key points about processes in mind:

  1. Everything is a process.
  2. Every process can be improved
  3. Documentation helps provide consistency in a process. You have many choices on how to document a process.
  4. The better a process is, and the more closely it is followed, the better the results.
  5. Processes improve quality, delivery, cost, and safety.


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