People or Process, which one wins?

Often when a business begins looking at optimizing processes or solving deficiencies in the business, the first topic that comes up is how the process can be “fixed” to work better. However, when processes are broken it is sometimes more of a people problem that a process problem. It’s very important to optimize processes, but it’s just as (if not more) important to make sure the right people are performing the right steps of the process.


Understanding people sometimes gets more into psychology than any sort of process optimization concepts. Some people will thrive regardless of how bad a process is while others will struggle regardless of how seemingly easy a process is.


Look at this video of Mike Mangini, the drummer from Dream Theater playing on a drum set constructed from Home Depot buckets and trash can lids. It may not sound as great as playing on an actual drum set but is still significantly better than most of us could play. The point here is that he is very skilled at playing drums, so the tools that he uses aren’t nearly as important as the talent that he possesses.


In one instance when helping a client streamline their processes, I was watching a customer service rep go through their order entry process. I immediately saw some areas that could be improved, but overall, she made it look simple and easy and flew through the steps. However, I then observed a different representative go through the same process and it looked cumbersome and hard to follow. So in this case who was performing the steps made a huge difference in the perceived result.


The largest challenge when starting a process optimization initiative is that we often fail to account for that human element. At the end of the day we are all like water in that we will always try to find the path of least resistance when performing any task, so when evaluation the steps in any process we must ask the following questions.


  1. Is every step and piece of information necessary? Often processes evolve over time and we end up adding lots of additional steps to the process that are meant to help make things easier but end up bloating the process. What ends up happening then is that people are asked to fill out additional information or perform additional steps that to them seem to add little value. Don’t be afraid the keep processes simple even if it feels like it’s “too simple”

  2. Are the correct people performing the correct tasks? When implementing a new process or revamping an existing one, it’s extremely important to make sure that the people who are tasked with capturing information at a certain step have the means to easily get that data into the system of record. Often one of the biggest hurdles to ensuring processes flow efficiently is that fact the someone has to either physically write down information and give it to someone else further down the chain to capture, or they have to physically go to a different location to enter the data, which takes us to the next bullet….

  3. Is the process supporting the actual physical flow? Any system or process should always reflect what happens in real life. One of the major traps in process design is that we get hung up collecting data and forget that the process needs to mirror what a person does. In many cases optimizing a process will change what that physical flow looks like, but it’s important to always make sure any business systems support the BEST process and the process doesn’t give way to supporting the systems. If the process should be A and then B and then C, don’t add a B.1 because we think we need some extra data captured.

  4. Do the participants understand why their steps are important? Whatever someone is asked to do at their step of the process must be important to THEM. In many cases, a process is designed and then people are trained on their part of the processes without understanding the entire process. But even when they are shown the entire process, they aren’t invested in anything that happens downstream. We often expect someone who is performing a task like managing inventory or making a product to care about what the CFO is seeing on their financial reports. And frankly, it’s unrealistic and it isn’t fair to ask them to care. Whatever steps they are involved in during the process should be impactful and meaningful to their step. Sure, if the inventory manager pulls material and doesn’t record it then the general ledger will be messed up. But what needs to be communicated to them is that if they don’t record it then their inventory will be wrong and next time, they will think they have something that they don’t. That example makes it tangible and impactful whereas the general ledger example does not.

The above steps can get you on the right path to making sure that people and process align appropriately in your organization. Neither one trumps the other, but both the process and the people must be considered when optimizing how you get the job done.


For more information on how to optimize your people or process visit us online!

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