Process Design

Say ‘process’ and most people initiate a kind of mental shutdown. We’ve all had to manage through badly designed, superfluous processes. For many, process is at best boring and at worst oppressive. There has been some substantial process innovation in areas of high tech, namely agile. Part of the reason I think it’s such a popular term is that it’s a process solution that isn’t immediately labeled as process. Agile is an example of this, but its linkages outside the engineering department are frequently neglected and the average on company-wide processes is pretty low.

Badly designed processes are bad. No process is also bad- much time is wasted on disconnects, getting information, waiting on key pieces of information, figuring out what to do and my personal favorite, what I call the ‘kids soccer game syndrome’ where lots of people are (wastefully) chasing the same ball. Well designed processes are one of the best things you can do for yourself. The balance of this post describes how to use process design to improve your organization.

What does good process design deliver?

The first step is a structured understanding of what process design is and how it can help. You can categorize every moment spent on work into one of three buckets-

Non-Value Added Time (NVA): Time wasted on waiting, fixing broken processes, and fixing communication linkages. Your goal as a manager is to eliminate NVA.
Business Value Added (BVA): Time spent on the necessary evil of providing visibility about your area to the rest of your organization (internal only). Your goal as a manager is to minimize BVA time.
Real Value Added (RVA): Time spent on delivering something of value that impacts the customer. Your goad as a manager is to maximize RVA time.

In terms of these buckets, good process design should-

  • reduce or eliminate NVA time
  • minimize BVA time
  • maximize RVA time

Take the example of a software developer. When they’re in the zone writing code against a relevant, well articulated product objective, that’s RVA time. When they’re pulled into meetings to explain where they are, how long their current activities will take, that’s BVA time. When they’re asked to estimate a feature that’s not yet well articulated or explain something about their delivery that’s already documented, that’s NVA time. With any job type that requires long, concentrated stretches to deliver on their objectives, bad process design is even more harmful. Having to switch between items because of interruptions degrades the individual’s ‘flow time’ or ‘flow ratio’, an increasingly popular metric that considers the deadweight loss from interruptions.

What is process design?

Process design is in different ways both easier and more difficult than other areas you may be used to like graphic design, user experience design, software design, or systems design. It’s easier in that it has a tightly constrained pallet; it’s more tricky in that you’re dealing with a broad spectrum of human behavior and systems.

The diagram below describes the general form of the process pallet:

Every process has at the bare minimum:

  • an input
  • a series of transformative sub-processes (that transform the input)
  • an output

If a process doesn’t have these things it’s not really a process; it’s just a set of notes on things people do. A few things commonly layered into the above are:

  • notes per sub-process on role (what job role performs the sub-process)
  • the same for systems involved (CRM, ticketing, finance, etc.)
  • enumeration of the sub-processes corresponding to a supplementary table that describes the processes in more detail (as well as possibly the items above)

These processes are usually organized in a hierarchy from core processes which contain functional processes which in turn contain sub-processes.

That’s what a process looks like. How do you build a good process design from that? The first step is to think like a designer, most importantly approaching the design with empathy and creativity. The process design is not an instruction manual for every little thing your team does. What you’re looking to cover is how inputs and outputs flow through to their ultimately delivery. Interfaces between different departments are particularly important. As we discussed, the definition is success is reducing or eliminating NVA, minimizing BVA, and maximizing RVA. Iterate and see what works. Chapter 7 of ‘Starting a Tech Business’ is a good start for understanding process design.

What does a good process design look like?

One common failure mode for process design is that an analyst creates it in a vacuum or that department heads are asked to create a process design and submit it. A good process design exercise starts with someone who’s read up on the process or is already familiar with it creating examples and guidelines, and then collaborating with the department heads on the design. If the exercise doesn’t raise substantial questions about how and why you do things, that’s a bad sign.

Getting Started

Chapter 7 of ‘Starting a Tech Business’ is a good start for understanding process design. It’s not complete at the time of this writing, but I’ll also be posting a sample process design for Enable Quiz (example company from ‘Starting a Tech Business’); when it’s up it will be here. If you really want to dive in, Arthur Tenner and Irving J. DeToro wrote an excellent book on the topic.