Susannah Clarke says a process approach can inspire innovation and creativity
When Jan, Paul and myself were working on our book, we started discussing the issue that it’s not uncommon for people to believe that once you’ve got a process, all the freedom and creativity has gone out of the work.
Some say that it’s not possible to innovate if you are constrained by a process.
Many associate process with tedious repetition of boring work and something that can only be applied to a manufacturing environment.
If you agree with that or have come across anyone who does, take 2 minutes, just as we did, to watch this brilliant example of how a process approach inspires innovation and creativity: Morecambe & Wise Make Breakfast.
This excellent sketch perfectly demonstrates a process approach and the three of us reflected on all the attributes that following this ‘breakfast making process’ (BMP) illustrates.
Hopefully, you found the video entertaining but, as with all simple presentations, there are many messages and lessons to be learned.
Let’s take a few of them:
- Role assignment – it was clear from the process Eric and Ern knew who was going to be doing what and when. There was a fair bit of coordination and some ‘handing over’ of responsibility – sound anything like you in your world of work?
- Sub processes – there was a lot going on there and many activities operating in parallel. Take the simple example of making toast. Unless the first activity of BMP was ‘put the bread in the toaster’ then the whole process falls out in timing and Ern is literally clutching at thin air when the toast is due to pop.
- Variation – now I don’t know how much you like grapefruit but your enjoyment of the breakfast output of the BMP will be dramatically affected by the size of the slice that Eric produced for you. Process timing and operator competence (sorry Eric) meant that there was far too much variability in grapefruit chopping and we would have to do something about that to ensure consistent customer delight – a topic for another day, perhaps? Whilst we’re at it the less said about Ern’s egg cracking for the omelette the better, I feel.
- Flow – there is no doubt that BMP had this by the bucket load. If I am ever doing anything more than my morning porridge, flow is almost completely absent and the head scratching and wasted journeys/opening and closing of cupboards adds little to the BMP and would not make my own BMP a watchable video.
You have to be very careful taking PDSA and 7 waste thinking into your home, life but simple videos like these are a chance to look again at topics like the process approach, systems thinking, PDSA and reapply that new insight into work situations.
Building innovation into your work is essential if you are looking to delight your customers – by definition the customer does not know what the delight factors are until they materialise so they can’t tell you.
Many successful organisations owe their competitive edge to their ability to innovate and, therefore, delight their customers.
However, if you want to innovate, you need to understand the current state of the work, before you can develop any theories on how to improve it.
And customers will not be impressed by clever new features if you are letting them down on the basics.
So how do you go about defining current work as a process?
At the most basic level, we need a definition of what is a process:
“A set of interrelated activities which transform a set of inputs to one or more outputs”.
There is a knack to learning how to think about any activity, such as making breakfast, as a series of clearly defined process steps.
It is a good idea to have a good representation from operators of the process, suppliers to the process and customers of the process with you.
This will help you learn about the process such as what may vary depending on the process operator, or their location; any discrepancies which may exist between how the process is supposed to work and how it actually works; legacy steps which may no longer be required but exist because “We’ve always done it that way”; or suppliers to the process who may not understand what you need from them or why it is important.
“It’s not enough to do your best. You must know what to do and then do your best.” Dr W Edwards Deming
Where do you start?
- Identify the process and use verb/noun to describe it: Make Breakfast Process
- Define the purpose of the process (why does this process exist?): to prepare a tasty cooked breakfast
- Record the Process Owner (if known): Ernie Wise.
With this agreed, you can now progress to creating a linear flowchart of the process:
- Establish the first and last steps
- Describe each major activity using a verb (action) followed by a noun (object)
- Write each step on a Post-it note
- Arrange the steps in sequence
- Connect the steps with arrows
- Don’t get lost in the details of the process.
At this point you should have between 8 – 12 steps.
Linear flowcharts are the simplest form and are useful to provide a picture of the overall flow. They can help you standardise the work, uncover duplication of effort, delays, omissions and unnecessary steps.
If you find that the flow of the process passes from one organisational unit to another you may want to consider using an integrated flowchart.
I will be thinking of Morecambe and Wise the next time I’m faced with a process bottleneck or analysing the unintended effect of the interaction of two processes I thought operated independently.
Perhaps I’ll change my mantra in the future and go from ‘What would Deming do?’ to ‘What would Eric and Ern do?’
Susannah Clarke is Managing Partner at Process Management International and co-author of ‘Implementing ISO 9001:2015’
Learn how to define and map your processes in the CQI’s ‘Process Design and Improvement’ course
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