Monday, November 12, 2007

Always Question the Process

Let me recount a story from the television show Babylon 5.  In one episode there is the description of guard posted in the middle of an empty courtyard.  There is nothing there to protect.  When one of the characters, Londo, questions why, he finds that no one, not even the emperor, knows why.  After doing some research, Londo discovers that 200 years before, the emperor's daughter came by the spot at the end of winter.  The first flower of the spring was poking up through the snow.  Not wanting anyone to step on the flower, she posted a guard there.  She then forgot about the flower, the guard, and never countermanded her order.  Now, 200 years later, there was still a guard posted but with nothing to protect.  There had been nothing to protect for 200 years.

This demonstrates the unfortunate power of process.  It often takes on a life of its own.  Those creating the complex system of rules expect it to be followed.  Once written down though, people stop thinking about why it was done.  Instead, they only expect it to be carried out.  This often leads to situations where work is being done for the sake of process instead of the outcome.  It is from this situation that bureaucracy gets its sullied reputation (well, that and the seeming ineptitude of many bureaucrats).  Process can easily become inflexible.  This is especially true in the technology industry where process is embedded in the code of intranet sites and InfoPath forms.

I encourage you to constantly revisit your process.  Question it.  Why do you do things the way you do?  Is there still a reason for each step?  If you don't know, jettison that step.  Simplify.  You should have just enough process to get the job done, but no more.  Once again, I'll re-iterate.  You hire smart people.  You pay them to think.  Let them.

This isn't to say that all process is bad.  Having common ways of accomplishing common tasks is efficient.  If a process truly makes things more efficient, it should be kept.  If not, it should be killed.  What was at one time efficient probably isn't any more.  Be vigilant.


  1. Steve Rowe has an excellent post on why we should revisit process and procedure from time to time. :{>

  2. Steve Rowe has an excellent post on why we should revisit process and procedure from time to time. :{>

  3. Steve,
    Great post.
    To me, the key question is not just "are the processes / steps / etc. needed", but has someone taken the time to document why it is needed (the conditions of that time).  Without that history (documentation) and a means to communicate it to future affected parties (those that initially develop and document a system are rarely the same folks that face the future question of "is the is process still needed?"), there is no justification that can easily be handed down to those questioning the process later on, especially if the current conditions have changed enough since the process was initiated.
    As a result, several bad things could happen:
    -  A good process could be abandoned, for lack of proof of its value (hasty decision - and the subsequent seeking for what went wrong and how to fix it)
    -  A bad process is kept, for fear that it might be a good process, but lacking solid proof (paralysis) and a disincentive to dig for the reasons (versus reading / reviewing an existing document - hopefully a somewhat easier process)
    -  A bad process is abandoned, without any historical perspective of why it may have been of value at one time
    In your Babylon 5 example, had the initial reasons for the guard been documented, there may have been greater incentive to review the reasons for the guard sooner and discontinue an unneeded process.
    I know no one likes to document, but there is a cost to not documenting as well.  This is a good example.
    Note that "document" means both "capture and preserve the reasons" and "have a way to easily find those preserved reasons at a later date by an uninformed individual".  A hard to find document does no good, and may as well not exist.
    As they say, those that don't study the past are doomed to repeat it!
    Scott R.

  4. Apropos of questioning the process...