Sunday, 28 March 2010 00:00

Is Process The Problem?

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For years, project failure rates have been ridiculous. Various groups have published statistics showing troubled or failing project rates range from forty to eighty percent. People have asked time and again the primary reason for project failure and I repeat the same list so many have already stated—poor management, inadequate understanding of the goals, miserable communication, the list continues. However, I have discovered one problem common to every project I have recovered that I think is core to many of these generic observations.

The Bane of Checklist Mentality

The problem is checklist mentality. Do not get me wrong, I like checklists and processes. I what have hundreds of them. They are great tools to ensure repetitive, especially monotonous, tasks are completed accurately. What I am talking about, though, is when they are used as a management style. It shows up quickly in an audit. Managers bring me lists of tasks that has been completed, showing they have monitored the project—charter signed off, check; change management process in place, check; risk register done, check; ad infinitum. It is someone else's fault the project is running poorly. Yet, when asked about the contents or their appropriateness, the answer is "We need to have those, it is part of our methodology." I ask the question again. The problem is that the people managing the project (project managers, PMOs, steering committees, and other management) do not know. They are simply fulfilling a requirement—ticking off the checklist.

Checklist managers think that by following a process they can bypass knowing the details. If this were true, managing could be reduced to a software application. To be effective, managers need to understand what their team is producing. That requires diving at least two layers down into the group and doing spot-checks throughout the team. These people will tell you when process is being followed for process sake.

Proper Reliance on Process

With the industrial revolution, came the need for process. The move to high volume manufacturing, created the need for unskilled laborers to repetitively build products with consistent quality. Processes made this possible. From there, processes have been applied to service work and guide most of a business' daily tasks. However, as work moves away from being repetitive, processes become less applicable.

For projects, process is only moderately applicable. By definition, projects have produce a unique process, service, or result. The fact that projects creates a unique entities means they cannot be fully proceduralized. Unfortunately, too many people treat them as if they can.

When Problem Occurs, Processes Break Down

We are so impressed by processes' success that we apply them everywhere. The value of processes are that they provide a strict method of doing a set of tasks in order to remove the variation, thought, and imagination in performing the them. Sales order intake, inventory picking, time tracking, hundreds of undertakings throughout the day have processes that we do not even think about. Processes simplify our lives, so we learn to trust and rely on them.

When we encounter an anomaly, though, we usually find the problem too late. No process is complete enough to identify all the error conditions. The sales order clerk using a process that assumes rolls, when the customer intended feet, is too often found when the complaint is registered and a RMA is request for two hundred rolls of wire. Any number of people in the order process could have questioned the quantity and the problem averted. The solution is to add more layers of process, instead of improving communication or having people think about how the order relates to the customer.

Numbing Through Process

Process allows us to succeed, but also numbs us. It eliminates the need to think and ask questions. In some case, with checklist managers, questions even bring reprimand. The organization's culture changes to such a degree that process actually hinders the project. People think following a process will solve all problems and apply them in the wrong situation. It makes there life easier, until there is a new problem and people rely on the process when they should have thought about what they were doing.

Mom's Ham Recipe

There is a story that runs around my family that Mom always cut the small end of the ham off prior to cooking it. She claimed the ham would fail to meet the old family flavor. One year, when visiting her family, my Dad queried about removing the small of the ham. Grandma replied, matter of factly, "I have to cut off some part or the lid won't fit on pan." Mom was right, no one likes dry ham, but her pan was much larger, she did not need to do that.

My Mom had become a checklist list manager, not questioning her process. On multimillion-dollar projects this blind adherence to process can be catastrophic and, I will attest, is the primary cause of failure.

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