Who hasn’t experienced that moment of dread when we first realize a serious mistake has been made? The initial feeling is great insecurity: How did this happen? What will my boss think of me? How will my peers view me? Will this cause us to lose clients? Market share? Brand value? Could I get demoted? Lose my job?
What happens next is driven by personality, character, and (hopefully) company culture. Do you immediately raise the alarm, own it, and figure out how to address it? Or do you take the opposite approach and bury or try to obfuscate? If the mistake is being reported to you, do you get angry and place blame? Pile on criticism even as someone tries to be accountable? Or do you go into problem-solving mode with them?
It’s in the what-happens-next that great businesses (and leaders) distinguish themselves from the average and the insufficient. Mistakes provide the ultimate training ground for one of life’s greatest teachers … process.
The Difference Between Knowing and Understanding
I used to think that having an eidetic memory would be an incredible advantage — that the ability to remember everything I ever read, learned, or experienced would help me to excel. Then I encountered someone who had an eidetic memory, and she helped me change my mind.
First, she pointed out that the downside of remembering everything one ever experienced is at least as great as the upside. Fair. Second, she distinguished between knowing something and being good at something. And she was right. Before I mastered bread-baking I memorized the ingredients and instructions, but I had to experience the process multiple times before I could make a loaf worth eating. Before I had the opportunity to lead large numbers of people I studied leadership, motivation, and management. But I had to apply all that knowledge to real life and make real mistakes to develop leadership skill.
The person with the eidetic memory was clear about the limitations of her gift. She was able to recall volumes of content with remarkable precision, but the knowledge ended there, because she lacked the experience to apply and connect much of it. In her words, she was “like a librarian, only faster, because I don’t need to consult the card catalog.”
Process Matters More than Results
It is through this lens that we can best understand that the purpose of business is not end results, but process.
I can feel the feathers ruffling from here as everyone who has ever created a quarterly shareholder report, attended a management meeting or been the evalu-ee in an annual employee review shakes their heads, clenches their fists, and gasps aloud at how any serious business practitioner could fail to grasp the all-consuming requirement of RESULTS.
I would like you to pat down those feathers, take a cool sip of water and consider how fixation on results over process ultimately leads to lack of innovation, the failure of employees to thrive, loss of competitiveness and even erosion of ethics.
Four Ways that Process Drives Excellence
Perhaps 90% of what happens in a business is repetitive process. From accounting to customer support to product development to marketing, each functional area of any business involves countless processes done by a sometimes stable, sometimes changing group of people. Admonishments to deliver “great customer service” will rarely yield the results you desire, but focus on improving the processes by which you deliver customer service can lead to greatness.
Process Documentation Improves Performance
One of my great frustrations as a business owner is how I often end up doing things myself because it’s faster than handing off the task. But peek behind the curtain of that frustration, and the problem is me. Many of the tasks I do are largely intuitive, based on decades of experience and muscle memory. But this doesn’t make the way I am doing them the most efficient nor even the most effective.
When you stop and think through a process sufficiently to write it down so someone else can do it, you invariably improve the process. You will find gaps in the process that could lead to error. You will uncover assumptions that are no longer (or perhaps never were) relevant. You can visualize where you are taking three steps when one would be sufficient. When process documentation is done as a group, you discover how many different ways people are doing a process. As the group streamlines the process and learns from each other, the resulting process conformity decreases errors. The act of documenting a process leads to greater efficiency and quality.
Process Uniformity Ensures that Improvements Reach Everyone in the Organization
When the organization achieves process uniformity, the first and obvious benefits are that errors go down, quality goes up, and efficiency improves. Those would be reason enough to embrace the value of processes. But there is still more benefit to be had.
The way you maintain process uniformity is to insist that process change is always an option, but that process change itself is a process. In every organization there are always a few people that perform head-and-shoulders above the others. Some of this will be due to innate talent and drive. But some of it will be that those people are improving the way they do their processes - improvements the rest of the company does not know about.
If your process change practice requires that anyone who has an idea for improving a process must bring that improvement to the group for discussion, testing, and agreement, then two things will happen: 1) genuine improvements will make it to the rest of the organization, and 2) ideas that are not actually improvements will not make it into the live environment.
Process Review Tied to Goals Leads to Success
When working with companies to set metrics for profit growth and quality improvement, one of the performance drivers is always related to process improvement. How does this look? Here are a few examples:
Goal Example 1: Increase Overall Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT)
- Metrics of success (RESULTS!) will generally be quantitative, like respond to emails 10% faster or reduce returns related to shipping errors by 15%.
- Most teams, without proper guidance, will simply try to work harder and/or faster to achieve those goals.
- But the way to achieve quantitative goals is to engage in qualitative behavior, like understanding all the underlying causes of shipping errors or understanding the methods of distributing and responding to customer emails. In other words, process analysis and improvement.
Goal Example 2: Improve Return on Product Development Investment
- Metrics of success could include $XXXX sales or 16% sales growth from new products or 11% new customer acquisition through new products.
- The best way to achieve those results is through analyzing your new product decision-making processes, product development process, and communication processes and dynamics between product development, sales, and marketing.
If you start with the assumption that any process can be improved, and you proactively review the processes underlying every business goal, your ability to deliver the desired results will improve. After all, result metrics are simply the what. Process improvement is the how.
Process Can Transform Problems Into Opportunities
But what about all the things that happen in a business that aren’t repetitive processes … the mistakes and the anomalies?
As I mentioned earlier, once the mistake has been discovered, what happens next could easily come down to differences in character and responsibility. But your business can’t afford that. You need problems to be effectively addressed as quickly as they are discovered.
The first step is to have a process for addressing mistakes.
Simply having a process for solving problems is an important nod to the reality that mistakes will happen. Companies that acknowledge that mistakes will happen and create methods for addressing them eliminate some of the defensive behavior that can make problems worse. More importantly, you can create a culture that responds with creativity rather than punitorily to mistakes, and this is where the magic happens.
Most mistakes are honest mistakes. In an environment where process is respected and processes are well-documented and trained, mistakes are generally the result of changing conditions in the market, new technologies, new business expectations, or evolution of the business model. It is impossible to anticipate all the ways that internal and external change might lead to mistakes (though it’s important to try). For those things we don’t anticipate, mistakes become our professor.
When a team engages in the problem-solving process, they go from knowing something to understanding something. Without the problem-solving process, they may only know the most superficial aspect of the problem, such as “Mark screwed up,” or they may even know that “Mark didn’t realize that Erin recorded the changes in inventory values incorrectly, and as a result we owe a lot of back taxes.”
Moving beyond knowing to understanding requires figuring out why Mark didn’t realize that Erin recorded the changes in inventory values incorrectly. A well-defined problem-solving process will help you define the problem, determine the cause of the problem, explore any other variables that could also lead to the problem, and create a solution that not only addresses the current problem but also prevents it from happening in the future. This will make your company more efficient and resilient.
It can also lead to consistent, even transformative, innovation.
This aspect of process management is incredibly exciting. Ask a group of people in a room to come up with a new idea, and watch the human embodiment of writer’s block unfold before your eyes. After uncomfortable silence, the ideas will either be based on things other companies are doing already or so far out there that you need a rocket to reach them.
Outside of silver bullets (which are widely published but rarely occur), most transformative innovation comes as a result of evaluating how something is done so observantly and so often that you are able to identify new opportunities that you couldn’t see or which were not possible before.
Commitment to continuously improving the processes of the business IS a commitment to results, but it brings with it the possibility of evolution and innovation. More importantly, you begin to see the truth of business results: Namely, that a result is simply a lagging indicator, but process is what drives the entire organization forward.