High-Quality Processes


All of us can think of examples of bad processes. They seem to be indelibly burned into our memories, but it may be hard to think of what a high-quality process looks like, because it feels like we've never seen one. Of course, that's not really true. All of us have experienced good processes; they are the ones that were invisible! Processes that are helpful, efficient and effective also seem to disappear into the background. Unless something draws our attention to them, we may not notice them at all!


So, what is it that makes a process "high-quality"? What is it about high-quality processes that make them invisible? There are a variety of attributes that all must be present in order for a process to be truly good. We will discuss each of them in this column. The sum total of those attributes is that the process helps people to do their jobs well without getting in the way.

Every process exists for a reason: it has a goal. A high-quality process has clearly understood goals that all of the stakeholders understand and agree upon. It is not necessary that the goal of a process be the same for every stakeholder. For example, for a project's sponsor,
the planning process exists to ensure that the project's goals can be achieved within its constraints.  For the project team, it provides a clear list of what each person is expected to do and when.

A process's multiple goals are only OK if they are compatible with each other and if all of the stakeholders recognize all of them and agree that they should exist. When there are conflicting ideas among the stakeholders about why the process exists, it becomes impossible for the process to meet all of them.

Of course, some processes outlive their usefulness. When the process goal becomes obsolete, then the process cannot be judged high-quality, no matter how well it works. Consistency
One of the key reasons for defining processes is to ensure that people's work is consistent. A high-quality process helps all of the people who are involved in performing the actions of the process to take those actions consistently. This includes helping any individual to perform consistently, as well as ensuring that when someone else performs those same actions, the result will still be consistent.

An inconsistent process is frustrating to most of the people who are involved. Customers are unhappy when they cannot know exactly what to expect from a supplier. And when inconsistency causes rework, someone must deal with those problems (even if it is the person who caused them in the first place). A high-quality process provides the support and prompting that is necessary to avoid these sorts of frustrations.

Closely related to consistency, the actions that comprise the process should be predictable. That is, one can plan for the activities, and count on the results of the process with the necessary degree of confidence. Many problems that are blamed on planning errors are in fact caused by unpredictability in processes that makes accurate planning impossible.

The level of accuracy required of the related plans drives how predictable a process's results need to be. If the plan need only be within 50% of the actual results, then the need for predictability in the associated process is relatively low. On the other hand, if the plan must be within 5% of the actual results, then the need for a predictable process grows. Quality
The result of a high-quality process is of a suitable grade and quality. That is, the product of the process (whether that "product" is a physical product, information, or activity) meets the needs of those who will use it.

Grade refers to the attributes that are required of the "product". For example, there are different grades of lumber, and each grade is appropriate for different types of uses. "Select" boards are needed for finish work, while "#2" boards are sufficient for rough framing.

Quality refers to other attributes (other than grade) that affect the product's usefulness. A "select" board that is moldy and warped from being left out in the rain still meets the requirements for its grade of "select", but is likely to be judged to be poor quality because it is unusable for its intended purpose.

The result of the process must be available when it is required. If the users of the process must wait too long for the results to be available to them, then the process's utility to them is severely hampered. By the same token, if the results are presented to the users before they can be used, its utility is likewise hampered. A high-quality process provides its results to those who need them, when those people need them.

The process should be tuned to minimize the cost and effort required to perform it. In the best of cases, every actor in the process judges the cost of the process actions to be well worth the benefits they receive from it. Unfortunately, this ideal is not always possible. Often, one actor in a process must invest extra cost or effort into the process in order to ensure the utility of the results for all of the stakeholders. In such a case, one must be sure to measure the efficiency of the process as it applies to all of the stakeholders, not just to those who are making the investment. A high-quality process will meet its goals for all stakeholders while consuming a minimum of resources over-all.

Finally, the process must actually be effective in achieving its goals. All of the efficiency, timeliness and predictability in the world are wasted if the process is not doing what the stake holders need of it. A process that does not satisfy all of the goals that have been identified for it can never be judged to be high quality. Making a process high-quality Every process needs to be examined to ensure that it is indeed high-quality. We must ensure that we understand all of its goals, that those goals are met in a way that is consistent, predictable, timely and efficient, and that the result of the process meets the stakeholders' requirements for grade and quality.

This examination is necessary any time there are issues or complaints about a process. It is also worth doing on some regular basis. An untended garden will go to weed more quickly that you would expect. A bit of effort can ensure that your process garden bares the good fruit that you need when you need it. 

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