[This is the first of a series of posts I’ll be making using edited excerpts from my new book: “Process to the People: delivering process wellness outside of manufacturing.” My goal is to complete writing by mid-2008.]
Paleontologists studying the process industry are positively giddy. For once, they have live specimens to examine. No dusting off tiny bones with toothbrushes this time. They can finally study living relics—process approaches with exotic names like six sigmasaurus, leanosaurus, constraintipod and controliform. Manufacturing-based process methodologies that failed to evolve as the bulk of our employment shifted from manufacturing to much more variable, office-based and service environments.
Seriously, you can look out your office door today and see what process was like 20 plus years ago—when process was often notable for its absence. And if you do see process, you’ll be looking back at least as far as 1985, when Motorola first implemented six sigma, the last popular process approach to emerge. Of course, six sigma and Lean live on in manufacturing. And yes, they’ve both grown incrementally over the years. Practitioners have even taken crowbars to them, trying to adapt process methods designed for manufacturing to fit into “variable” environments, as we’ll call the whole spectrum of non-production settings. But for all their efforts, they’re still pounding square pegs into round holes. Working from scratch, you’d never design a process approach for use in variable environments on a six sigma or Lean platform.
Moreover, the evolution in workplace settings is hardly the only change that left 1980s process approaches behind. Think back to 1985. Little chance you had a PC. But if you did, you probably had but one application—word-processing. If you were lucky, a spread sheet, too. How many icons show on your desktop today? And guaranteed you weren’t connected to a network. Although we did have sneakernets back then for spreading viruses. The internet? It was still a brain fart of rocket scientists wanting to collaborate and share data with other rocket scientists. Windows? Forget it. My company had just switched from CPM to DOS the year prior. And the staff had to drag me kicking and screaming because CPM was so much better. Now let’s stride out onto the factory floor. Robots? Only in comic books. Buffer parts inventories? How do you spell that? Managing variances in terms of infinitesimal deviations from the mean rather than whole percentage points? What planet are we talking about? And shifting over to the warehouse, automated warehouse management systems? What’s wrong with quills and scrolls?
I hope I’m not being overly subtle here, but do you perhaps get the sense that we don’t work the way we did in 1985? And might you suspect that circa mid-1980s process approaches, especially manufacturing-based approaches, might not factor in all our new, variable environment tools and capabilities?
Outside of manufacturing, the work world of 1985 bears virtually no resemblance to our variable work environments today. Application software, the Internet, sophisticated data networks, collaborative data sharing and an adult dose of demographic and psychographic work force changes have revolutionized how we work. And to further differentiate yesterday from today, today we understand—at least those of us not pledging allegiance to one process approach under God understand—that designing business process for variable environments takes very different techniques and skill sets than designing the manufacturing side. The work of one bears little resemblance to the other. And neither do the workers.
That’s why it’s long past time for us to design, from the ground up, process approaches capable of addressing variable process needs. Not only will we create the capability to cut costs, increase efficiency, raise effectiveness and reduce cycle times throughout companies—but perhaps even more importantly, we’ll have the opportunity to properly align variable environment processes with the new, customer-focused business strategies many companies are scrambling to adopt to stay competitive.