The Way of the (Process) Ninja


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A terrible headline, I apologise, but now I have your full attention…

1. Find inner clarity

All processes do things, they have a purpose, a raison d’être. That might be to mend broken arms or to let people know how much tax they owe.

But people are rarely clear what that purpose is:

  • Are they trying to solve a customer query or cross sell a product?
  • Are they trying to make cars or keep a factory running efficiently?
  • Are they trying to train people in process improvement or fix some processes?

Because they are not crystal clear what their purpose is then their processes will become confused, convoluted slow and expensive.

To be a Ninja clarify what that purpose is and design your process around it.

Find inner clarity.

2. Strike at the gaps

We can all optimise and improve performance, that is no great skill, the problem is that we optimise around the wrong thing, we optimise around ourselves.

  • We build “centres of excellence
  • We engage in internal turf wars
  • We stock pile to make ourselves look efficient

It is in our nature to improve our own position and performance but that isn’t process improvement.

People point optimise around themselves and mess up the process for everyone else.

To be a Ninja look at the hand-offs between people and departments.

Strike at the gaps.

3. Drink tea

We love to get into a good fight. How often have you…

I do it all the time.

I am so good at it that I once received the feedback that I “use e-mail like a machine gun”.

It might have made me feel better, I might even have won the battle but I only make any progress when I sit down and talk to my customers and understand them.

This is always best done over a cup of tea.

Ninjas listen to people.

Drink tea.

4. Expect the worst

Processes rely on people to work them, often technically skilled people.

  • People who can understand the legalities of insurance policies
  • People who know how to spot a heart attack
  • People who can fix your PC from the end of a phone 5,000 miles away

You can make a choice when relying on other people:

  1. Expect them to do the right thing at the right time all of the time
  2. Expect them to make mistakes, they are human

We all pride ourselves on employing the best, most gifted capable people in the world. We might even be right, but there is a reason why Steve Jobs died a very very rich man.

It wasn’t because the iPhone is tricky to use.

A Ninja realises people are not infallible so spends time making processes simple.

Expect the worst.

5. Do the unexpected

Anybody with any sense will tell you to manage the process, not the people. The minute you start to “performance manage” your people is the minute you start to drive a whole host of defensive and unhelpful behaviours.

So the logic is if you focus on improving the process, not the people you will get far better results.

But that is folly.

No process operates in a vacuüm. Processes and people are inextricably interlinked. So manage the people:

  • Provide feedback on performance
  • Discuss ways to improve it
  • Tolerate failures and learn from them
  • Give them the tools to improve their processes
  • Accept where things are not right and work as a team to fix them

Just be clear that allocating blame, targets and incentives is not managing people. It is simply creating fear.

Ninjas manage the people to manage the process.

Do the unexpected

The big secret

What a Ninja really knows is that process improvement isn’t about tools, techniques, data and charts. Process improvement is about people.

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Process Ninja

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Image by Seth W

Republished with author's permission from original post.

James Lawther
James Lawther is a middle-aged middle manager. To reach this highly elevated position he has worked for many organisations, from supermarkets to tax collectors and has had multiple roles from running a night shift to doing operational research. He gets upset by operations that don't work and mildly apoplectic about poor customer service.


  1. All good common sense and very like my own thinking! It’s not that hard to be a ninja – start with the customer need and work back from there – eliminate as much as you can, optimise customer interactions, reduce handoffs challenge business rules. These are the way of the ninja – and there may be many ninjas but I am THE process ninja 😉

  2. Exactly,

    “start with the customer need and work back from there”

    Strange how process thinking and customer thinking are thought of as two different types of “thinking”



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