ISPI publishes a weekly digest of news and information for performance improvement consultants.  Last week they published their top stories for 2011.  Over the next few days I will feature my thoughts on those I feel are particularly noteworthy.
Click here for my first entry.
Click here for my second entry.

I come from a process improvement background.  My job is to look for opportunities to improve individual and organizational performance.  Almost a year ago, Harvard Business Review posted an entry on process ownership.  As we move into a new year the question asked in the title is worth pondering.

To begin, I agree with the author’s assessment of process improvement efforts.

When organizations set about improving the way they work, the natural tendency is for them to do it within functions. They don’t necessarily improve processes that cross function.

However, I disagree with his assertion that “companies must appoint process owners to ensure that processes are improved across functions.”  This is controversial because he names several well-known “gurus” of process improvement who advocate this approach.  But this is a blog so I am obligated to be controversial.  Right?

The author cites these experts’ recommendation that companies “establish the process owners, process councils, and other pieces of a formal process governance structure to manage their six to 10 core, cross-functional processes. The process owners are supposed to be highly placed, respected, and connected to make things happen. Their responsibilities include:

  • Acting as the “voice of the customer” by understanding customers’ total experience with a company, from the moment they learn about it to the moment they end the relationship.
  • Monitoring process key performance indicators (KPIs) and keeping top executives apprised of how processes are performing.
  • Making sure the company’s key processes are delivering competitive advantage, or if not, that the right fixes are on the way.”

I agree that a plan for process improvement is better than nothing.  However, I believe this approach will ultimately fail or lose momentum because it is too formal and possibly redundant.  In his own words, the author says the owners have to be “highly placed, respected, and connected.”  He is saying that the people responsible for process ownership should not be the people who actually perform the processes.  How crazy is that?

Its no surprise that he ends his post listing reasons why organizations revert to functional management.  He provides a long list, but most of them trace their origins to the fact that the people responsible for process ownership are too far removed from the actual processes.  Below are the reasons.  In his post the author provides additional explanations for each.

1. Attention shifted

2. Roles were misunderstood

3. Accountability was lacking

4. The role had little influence

5. The organizational structure was too complex

6. Employees were uncomfortable

For organizations that are serious about achieving and sustaining cross-functional process improvement, I recommend establishing process owners.

If a process owners are defined as “pieces of a formal process governance structure to manage their six to 10 core, cross-functional processes” I believe the effort will not succeed.  Here’s why.

  • Attention always shifts – The further you get away from the actual work the harder it is to maintain focus and urgency.
  • Organizations are complex – Additionally, embedding process improvement in a formal process governance ties process ownership to organizational structure which has rules and hierarchies.  This is not a bad thing, its just limiting.
  • Improvement can’t always be formalized – Employees need to have some freedom to try new things on their own.  An employee has to submit an improvement idea before they can experiment with it is less likely to bother.

I believe process improvement is cultural.  I make my living looking for ways to improve personal and organizational performance but I can’t do it alone.  An organization that wants to improve should encourage its employees to look for ways to improve, provide mechanisms for capturing those improvements, and incentives to motivate them.