Processes: When to Start

Quick Summary: Unexpected results are a key indicator of when to implement processes.


It may sound obvious but when to start implementing processes is when they are needed, not earlier or not later.  There are a number of telltale signs that are good indicators when the time has come.  Starting earlier may result in miss-steps because the actual issues that need to be addressed may not be known. Waiting later may be costly in terms of efficiencies, loss of customers, or even the failure of the business.  Reviewing the list of process need indicators can help a company determine when to do what.

Established companies typically all use processes as part of their normal course of business.  As new products or services are added or changes in existing activities are made, implementing appropriate processes is just part of their normal methods of operation.  New or small companies rarely have embraced processes as part of their culture.  For these organizations, processes are typically implemented after it becomes apparent that they were badly needed.  There are, however, a number of warning signs that indicate the need to implement some processes before negative consequences appear.  Rarely, does a wholesale, company-wide need to implement processes develop simultaneously.  Instead, certain functions or organizations may sense the need first.  Below is a list of some of the telltale warning signs that could occur.  Not all of the items listed will be experienced at the same time, but more than likely, multiple items will be present with make-shift approaches are unconsciously implemented to address them.  The items are listed in no particular order.

  1. When procedures are put in place to fix a known problem that quite commonly occurs.
  2. When elements within the company are constantly interrupt driven to resolve issues that take them away from their normal activities.
  3. When a work group grows to the point that they cannot go to lunch in the same car, sit at the same table, and share the same pizza!  The underlying logic of this observation is that as the group becomes larger, communications between all of the group’s members becomes more difficult. Invariably some people “know” while others do not.  With documented processes in place, activities and responsibilities are clearly defined and need for constant communication diminishes.
  4. When customer complaints or the need for rework increases.
  5. When individuals are driven by the motto of “do whatever it takes”.  This issue usually means that extraordinary or unique efforts are required to accommodate defects or missed commitments.  On the surface, the “whatever it takes” attitude may seem to be a positive attribute.  And, to be fair it is as long as it is not required every day. Extraordinary efforts are not sustainable. 
  6. Training new people seriously impacts the efforts of existing personnel because of the lack of documentation.
  7. When the frustration level of individual contributors or entire departments increase due to a lack of others meeting their commitments.
  8. When existing methods are clearly no longer scalable and deadlines are regularly missed.
  9. When valuable contributors leave the organization because of burnout or, worse, they “quit and stay”.
  10. When gross margins begin to deteriorate due to inefficiencies in operation.

An interesting aspect to this list is that companies may not think they have reached the point at which they feel they need to implement processes until they review this list.  Invariably, they will immediately relate to some of the items listed.  The issue is that these items do not suddenly appear.  Instead, their severity starts out as a minor issue or inconvenience that the organization figures out how to address with a solution that quickly becoming institutionalized until “all of a sudden” someone realizes or something happens that makes the stop gap method inappropriate.  By periodically reviewing this list and asking each manager to do the same, the organization will know when it is the right time and place to start process implementation.

There is another method in determining when to start implementing process that is most useful when a process that appears to be running smoothly is already in place.  When questioning this process, a typical response is “why mess with it, it is working fine; it isn’t broken, so why fit it?”  The method involves asking one question, “What if we had to increase the output by ten times, essentially adding a zero to the throughput requirement?”  For example, instead of shipping two systems a day, we had to ship twenty?  Instead of negotiating one contract a week, we had to do ten?  Instead of handling five customer service calls a day, we had to handle fifty?  In almost every case what works for one will not work for ten.  To really test the mettle of the process, add two zeros; instead of one, we had to do 100.

Thankfully, rarely does a process require a quick tenfold increase.  In recent years some consumer products and web sites have experienced this dramatic increase due to initial under-forecasted demand.  Performing this exercise before the problem arises may give ample time to respond to it when it occurs.  Do not be surprised that the well running process today needs to be totally scrapped if the add-a-zero demand occurs.  Without planning for this event, the likely scenario will be that the process keeps being applied and band-aid modifications keep being made until one day, perhaps at the three or four times point it breaks.  Then, everyone will realize it is time to start.  Unfortunately, it might be too late.  The lack of scalability after initial success is one of the most frequent reasons for new company failure.


Article Number : 6.030501   

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