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Asking the right questions drives process leadership

The key to business process leadership lies with mapping workflows and keeping the end goal in sight.

I remember trying to deposit a $30,000 check a few years ago, and the teller saying a nine-day hold would be put on the check -- quite a sticky wicket for me. When I asked why it would take nine days, she said, "It takes that long for the funds to clear." I told her how insane it was that I could instant message a friend in India in just a few seconds, but it would take nine days for a large financial institution to communicate with another large financial institution to check funds (presumably a common task). She responded, "Sorry, it's our process." In response, my process leadership strategy was to stop banking with them.

I'm sure you've had a similar experience with process leadership, but hopefully not at your company. If you or your team focuses more on a workflow's steps than on its actual objectives, you can fall into the process management trap. It's the triumph of means over ends: following the steps because they are the steps. Everyone involved in a process must clearly internalize its desired objectives, not just its steps. Process management focuses on getting the steps right, while process leadership focuses on the goals and objectives of the process. And, just as in your organization, too much management and not enough leadership will get you nowhere fast.

Believe it or not, the company with zero process management is better off than the company with too much process management and not enough leadership. It doesn't have an investment or overhead in its processes. It doesn't have a documented business process that can interfere with its intended goals. Of course, the chaos will eventually catch up with it, and I'm not advocating this approach.

Process management comes with a cost. It takes time, money and resources to develop, maintain and control processes. If your functions aren't effective, this cost is wasted. And there's a bigger problem: All the work you've put into developing and following your process will hypnotize your organization into thinking it is doing something effective. So, you continue to follow your process, even if it's antithetical to your originally intended goal. Sounds ridiculous, right? Yet I see it all the time.

Process leadership made simple

The essence of process leadership is simple: Clearly define the objectives for each of your critical business processes. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are you expecting this workflow to do?
  • What transformation will happen with this workflow?
  • What constraints exist around the outcome (for example, quality standards)?
  • What does the end state look like if this business process completes successfully?
  • Who benefits from this workflow, and are their needs being met?
  • Who has other interests (for example, a regulatory interest) in this workflow, and are their needs also being met?

Communicate these definitions to everyone involved in your business process. Clearly state these objectives in your process documentation (you do have process flow documentation, right?) and make it extremely clear that you care more about the end than the means. Meeting the objective is the primary function of the workflow, and it's more important than following the proper steps. To take it a step further, explore and document alternative courses of action that will achieve the same objective.

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Business process management without business process leadership is a high-speed train to nowhere. The best thing you can do for your process is to ensure that it is a means to an end. Clearly document and communicate your objectives. Survey the landscape of your current processes, and make sure your ladders are leaning against the right walls. As a leader, this exercise starts with you.

John Weathington is president and CEO at Excellent Management Systems Inc., a San Francisco-based management consultancy.

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