Are processes stifling creativity?

Now this is really an interesting topic and I want to thank Lisa Bodell for bringing it up on the fast company website. How can you make sure that your business is not stifled or paralized by burying it under too many and too detailed processes? For me this is a no-brainer. Processes are intended to make necessary and recurring tasks easier to manage in order to give people more time to focus on creative and productive work!


Good processes
When I work with clients I try not to impose a layer of unnecessary processes that take up a lot of time and resources. In my opinion, the job of any business process manager should be to identify the processes that are already in place. And every business has processes. If you want to break it down into the most basic structure there is at least the need to find clients or customers, to deliver a product or service and to receive some kind of payment (even if it is in-kind).

 And I have never worked in or with a business where this is done only once. So there are tasks and jobs in every company or other organization that are done on a recurring basis. It is essential to identify these tasks, document them and transform them into processes exactly because there is internal knowledge available and because these tasks need to be documented in order to scale up. I cannot see any reason why this procedure of identifying and documenting processes should be detrimental to creativity. Instead it is a way of removing the need to think about how to complete these chores and thus empower people to focus on the creative side of work.In the same way, the next steps in a typical business process project do not cause any severe burden on a business because they focus on making the processes safer and easier to manage. The mapping of the process in a flowchart or swimlane diagramm and subsequent streamlining of all steps and tasks involved enables the process owners to reduce work load and unnecessary aprovals or other points that might impede creativity.

And bad processes
I know only two situations where processes have the potential to become a burden:
One are processes imposed on a company or organizations by government authorities which have to be followed for compliance reasons. And there is not much that can be done about it.
Another situation occurs when processes are introduced in order to enhance accountability and the ability to measure performance. Usually, this includes submitting scorecards and reports, most of the time with detailed but often ill-monitored aditional data points. To measure employee and overall company performance is perfectly reasonable. But the benefits of these insights have to be weighted against the financial and operational costs and – to stay on topic – against how they affect the creativity of the employees. The problem here is that it is difficult to decide what actually helps and what impedes the creativity of your employees. Stay true to the principle that less is more and to keep it simple and you should be able to strike the right balance.In my experience even for highly creative people like designers, musicians etc. processes are perfect guidelines to navigate parts of the workflow that are not at the center of their interest. To use the wording of the E-Myth, these technicians need the help of processes to handle the mangerial parts of business.


So if you feel your company is loaded with bad processes, let’s talk about how they might be improved.



Business Process Kaizen Team in Action

There is not much to be said about this video.

For me, it kind of summs up why BPM is such a powerful vehicle for improoving effectiveness.

I particularly admire the determination with which the changes have been implemented. Redesigning the whole office layout to reflect the improved process is a brilliant move. Spot on!

If you got a similar case study, post a link here. I am sure all readers would love to see more examples of successful implementation of new business processes.


Invent the Wheel!

I saw this picture on and it kind of stuck with me because it shows a sad truth: Too often, we don’t take the time to work on the really important stuff.

I don’t only experience this in my client work but can see me falling into this trap myself time and again.

I am sure everybody remembers a situation where we don’t see the big picture.
How often do we say: I need to hire more people but don’t have the time to find new employees because I am too busy with the work they should be doing?
Who wasn’t in a situation where he realized he needs to delegate a task but felt that taking the time to explain it could be saved by doing it himself?

And thus we don’t invent the wheel and continue wasting ressources.

But these situations are opportunities to improve. So when we feel that we don’t have time to invent the wheel, we should at least make sure to write down the idea. Later, when the time comes and you build it, write down how you built it. Because then your invention can be leveraged and spread.

And when you see someone on the street selling the stuff that solves your problems, at least take the time to consider it!

Why small companies need to think about processes

Meet Jim the baker, who could be a kind of older uncle to Bob the builder. Jim is a role model baker that is featured in a “case study” on the website of the ISO. And he does everything right. According to one caption in the article,  Jim the Baker follows a clear pathway to integrated MSS (management system standards) implementation and, by applying sound management supported by MSSs, his business expands to provide catering services for large organizations.

Implementing ISO 9001 or 14001 from the start might be a tall order for most start-ups. But I agree that including systems and processes in your strategy is the way to prepare for success.

Why processes?

Think about sales systems: communicating the need for a sales & customer service system will lead you to answer questions like: how is the sales process going to look like? What kind of data points do I want to collect? What will the main channels of communication be? You will not be able to answer all questions right away and it is a good thing to experiment with different solutions. Make sure that you don’t lock yourself in too soon. A simple Excel sheet with some conditional formatting will be enough CSMing for many start-ups during the first few months. If you want a web app, make sure it provides export functions via universally accepted standards like CVS or XML just in case you need to switch to a different solution later on. Keep your mind open and take as many notes about your chores as possible. These notes about all the little gremlins, hick-ups and screw-ups will provide valuable insight in where the process is still troubled. The same is true for your accounting, your HR, etc. If your company grows – and you want it to grow – then you will need processes and standards defined for all of them.

Michael Gerber recommends an even more vigorous approach for every small business owner in his book “The E-Myth”: do every job in your start-up yourself first, starting from the bottom and work your way up. Note down all the necessary tasks and qualifications. Use these to define the processes and responsibilities for every position until you reach the top. The result will be a set of documents with clearly defined processes, procedures and check-lists that help you run your business. If you feel overwhelmed, look for a person new to your ranks or an external consultant. They will provide a fresh perspective on how things could be done.

Path to success for small businesses

Why is this especially important for start-ups and small businesses? Many people tend to think that business processes are for large corporations with thousands of employees and a legion of consultants at their disposal. Companies with a war chest. But the opposite is true. Big companies are the ones that tend to suffer more from byzantine approval procedures and strict guidelines. That is why they are forced to spend a big amount of money fixing these problems. If you consider processes and standards in the beginning, you can minimize problems in the future. Your company is still young, eager and flexible. Changes can be applied easily and quickly. So make sure to use this window of opportunity and to prepare for the moment when you roll out a mobile-based sales tool or train ranks of customer-service staff.

Another plus for small businesses with restricted cash-flow is the better allocation of resources. If you got your delivery routes worked out early or have your sales-force following a tested process, you will be leveraging tools that many companies only think about at a later stage, when problems arise. I remember the example of a client explaining why an online tool to manage their developers’ time did not work out: they scratched it when the time slots collided whith reality and needed to be changed frequently. But in the end, the meeting and work times had to be arranged somwhow. The result was that all employees resorted to multiple, hard-to monitor channels which led to confusion, wasted time and a lot of uncoordinated meetings.

So take advantage of your unique position as a small business owner! You know you want to expand (in sales, offices, staff, etc.). Prepare to scale up!

When you already did, please share your story in the comments. It would be great to get more insights!

Take your marks! Swimlane charts for processes

Questions that always come up once you identified the seperate tasks in a process are: How do I visualize this? How do I make sure that it is in a logical (or at least suitable) order? How can I show this to others and make them understand the connections?

While there may be a lot of different ways to do this, one method has taken hold in the process management community: The swimlane diagramm

What is a swimlane diagramm?

A swimlane diagramm is basically a flowchart with one additional attribute: The tasks are ordered according to roles in seperate rows (or columns) that represent the different roles. These are the swimlanes and it is totally irrelevant wether they are horizontal or vertical. For my brain it seems I can follow the horizontal arrangement better. But the vertical arrangement has the advantage of being easier to lay out on an A4 page. Some people also prefer the vertical swimlanes because it resembles a checklist that can be used in everyday process execution.

Above you see an example of a horizontal swimlane chart for a simplified hiring process in a bigger SME. Note that the horizontal lanes are labeled according to the role that is responsible for the different tasks.

This chart was created with the free software yEd graph editor. But swimlane diagramms are not a matter of dedicated software. There are a number of Powerpoint templates out there that include all necessary boxes and connectors. In a team environment a simple whiteboard with stickers is probably the most flexible and practical way to establish lanes and order tasks. And don’t forget: there is still pen and paper to do it!

Sample Hiring Process-Paper-V1


Now that you identified and documented your tasks, understand what a swimchart diagramm is and got your weapon of choice to put it down, how do you actually write one of these things?

Creating a swimlane chart

A swimlane starting point is always a round shape that represents a trigger event for the process. It is a good idea to also immediatly determine which event defines the end of the process and put it right at the end of the diagramme in the according swimlane. Use a round shape for this one as well. The seperate activities in between are normally displayed as rectangular boxes. Decision points are represented by diamond shapes. After you identified start and end points and put in all tasks and decisions you need to connect the seperate fields with arrows. The general rule is that there is only one connector coming in and one going out from every rectangular box. Decision diamonds have one arrow going in and (usually) two going out, representing a yes or no/true or false decision. In many cases a no/false will initiate a feedback loop back to an earlier stage of the process. But there are also situations where such decisions would mean cancelling the process or a initiating a different process.

To summarize:
  • swimlanes: rows or columns labeled according to functions
  • start, end point: round shape (One arrow coming out)
  • task: rectangular box (one connector coming in, one going out)
  • decision: diamond shape (one connector going in, two going out)
  • connectors: arrows between the boxes

You can see all these elements in the example above. This is a simplified process, though. Complex processes in large organizations or for webbased services might contain more than a dozen swimmlanes and hundreds of nodes. Such diagramms might require the depiction of further aspects like material flow or data base queries.

If you want to learn more about swimlane charts, there are hundreds of tutorials on the web. Or just get in touch with me and I will answer your questions personally.

Please remember one thing:

You have to do that first! When you are fairly confident that you got all the necessary information, then it is time to map it out in a swimlane diagramme. And while mapping out you will most certainly stumble upon areas in the process where information is still lacking or unclear. But don’t consider this a set back! Instead, think of it like this: you just started to actually work on your processes and not let the processes determine your work!

Another important point to keep in mind is that while trying to gather as much information as possible about your processes, not all of it needs to be integrated into your swimlane chart. Don’t confuse the different functions of process maps, check-lists and procedures. (See a general introduction to the differences here)

Follow this blog as I will give some tips on the first steps when identifying and documenting processes in another post.