Processes and procedures are great.  They take complex tasks, simplify them and make them repeatable. They bring structure, organization and visibility.  From applying for a driver’s license, to deciding what features to add to your app next, to getting your expenses paid, processes and procedures are everywhere.  The world is organized, codified and reliable.

Except it isn’t.

Take a look at the picture below.  It’s the co-working facility I use for receiving our mail and for meeting customers.  These are the hot desks.  Each booth has a curtain and a red light above it that indicates whether the booth is occupied.  The red light comes on when you turn the lights on in the booth and goes off when you switch them off.  It’s a simple system, so you don’t have to pull back the curtains to check if the booth is occupied and disturb someone while they’re working.

broken processes Reflective Management

How many booths were occupied when I took this picture?  There are 3 lights on.  Answer.  None!  The process doesn’t work.  You have to peek through the curtains.  The light bulbs are pointless.

This process is incredibly simple.  It is beneficial to everyone who participates in it.  And it doesn’t work.  Why not?  Because human behavior is messy and non-deterministic.  There are lots of reasons that could explain why there are three lights on in the picture above:

  1. Didn’t know the process
  2. Didn’t care about the process
  3. Left for a minute but didn’t come back
  4. Knew about the process but forgot to switch the light off
  5. Knew about the process, hit the switch but not hard enough
  6. Mischievously turns on random lights to cause mayhem

This simple process with two states has 6 different ways (and you can think of more) that someone can inadvertently or purposefully break it.  Now scale that up to a more complex process, say posting a package at the Post Office.  Lots of people involved, complex process, infinite potential for things to go wrong.

When Do Processes Work Reliably?

There are circumstances when processes work reliably.  If your life, someone else’s life depends on a process, you’ll follow it carefully.  If you’d get fired for not following the process, you’ll follow it.  These are examples wherethe cost of not following the process is too high.  You are making people care (reason 2) and making them pay attention (reasons 3 through 5).

If there is simply no room to deviate from the tasks, the process usually works well but isn’t typically well liked.  Automated procedures are good for rigidly enforcing processes.  Take a code check-in process.  If the only way your code can get built is for it to go through an automated series of checks, you don’t have any choice but submit it.

In summary, processes work reliably when  :

  1. The cost of failure is too high
  2. The process is rigidly and dogmatically enforced

But even when the stakes are high, people still don’t follow a process.  Surgeons sometimes skip steps in procedures and leave swabs inside patients.*  A brand manager skips a geo-check because they need to get something done quickly.  Again, humans are messy.

Without Processes There Would Be Anarchy

This is of course true.  Processes do bring SOME structure, order, reliability and predictability.  This post is more about expectations.

  • If you EXPECT that your process will produce results reliably.
  • If you EXPECT that people will follow your process religiously.
  • If the success of your process is so important to you that YOU try to rigidly enforce it.

Then you will end up disappointed.  And you’ll make yourself and your process unpopular with it.

Embrace the chaotic and messy nature of humans.  We will ignore, misinterpret and abuse your process.  Watch how they do this.  They may show you how to simplify your process.  They may show you where they really need structure.  They may show you that you don’t need a process at all.

The important thing is to let the process go and pay attention to how humans work around it so you can make it better.


* See Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, a great read on this topic

Got a question about management or leadership?

Questions for the Reflective Manager is a regular column where managers and their employees ask questions about the management topics top of mind for them and their organizations.  Send your questions to the Reflective Manager at [email protected]

Leave a Reply