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.


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.