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Process Discipline in the Bermuda Triangle

Over the past few months, our blog series has discussed how to diagnose the stagnant growth stage known as the “Bermuda Triangle of Growth,” and the impact that it can have on a company’s people and organizational structure. This particular post will focus on process discipline, which can be best described as converting predictable, high-quality inputs into high-quality, on time outputs using a repeatable set of controlled activities.

Over the last four years, a growing number of our clients have requested process maturity assessments that cover the operational side of the business (e.g., order-to-cash and supply chain). In a surprising number of these assessments, we’ve discovered an all too familiar set of symptoms:

  • The organization had become dependent on a relatively small number of knowledge holders (i.e., the only individuals in the company who actually knew how the processes worked).
  • Employees complained about too many “information only” meetings.
  • Information exchanges between departments was fragmented (i.e., email and Excel had become the system of record, even when the ERP system was operational).
  • New employees were frustrated by the lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and overall process discipline.
  • Every day was like “Groundhog Day” – unplanned, with new priorities taking precedence over those previously on the docket.
  • Communication systems were broken, and management often experienced frustration over delivery errors and overhead costs; however, they didn’t try to identify and understand the root cause of the breakdown.

The increase in process maturity assessments is a relatively recent trend, and it begs the question: Why now? One hypothesis is that now, more than ever, there is a need for innovation-fueled growth.  Whether an early stage biotech with only a handful of commercial products, a new to market food or beverage start-up, or a smaller medical device company trying to gain a foothold in a saturated market, innovation is at the core of their success.  Unfortunately, at some point, the push for innovation and speed-to-market can overwhelm the process capabilities of the organization. This often results in unplanned breakdowns in communication, roles & responsibilities, and ultimately product and service quality. Even worse, this innovation-driven mindset has led some organizations to believe that project management disciplines, which are necessary for new product innovation, are the optimal way to run the entire organization. Unfortunately, the competencies that contribute to effective project management are inherently opposed to the process disciplines necessary for delivering consistent products and services. That is, in a “project” organization, critical success factors include: speed (driven by level of effort), agility, and employees’ abilities to stretch beyond their assigned roles. In a “process” organization, we find just the opposite. Speed is achieved by removing waste and being lean, not by increasing the level of effort. Taking responsibility for one department’s outputs, or fixing the quality problems of another, creates unplanned bottlenecks and rework delays. Finally, repeatable, scalable processes generally aren’t agile unless there are dedicated sub-teams or technology-based solutions that are focused on that particular need. So, in order to continuously innovate – and to sustain the growth that often accompanies it –  process discipline and project management competencies are both essential.  Failure to maintain an appropriate balance between the two will only end in one result: a journey into “The Bermuda Triangle of Growth.” Once you’re there, there are few options short of taking remedial action. Invariably, this implies making investments in people, processes, and technology in order to bring process capabilities back into focus. That’s our experience. What’s your take? Do you have another point of view as to why process discipline is waning in many organizations today? We welcome your thoughts, and encourage you to read our next post on technology.

Tags: Operational Excellence, Process Design & Development