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Participate in the Process/Practice Survey

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Are business practices more important than business processes? Nobody really knows. We need evidence, which is why you should participate in this survey of the subject.

By Bob Lewis | December 5, 2011
Topics: Industry Commentary, Organizational Design, Organizational Effectiveness, Process Management and Improvement | Comments Off

In World War II the French lost to the German Army, not because they were “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” but because their generals were prepared for the last war, not the next one. The French soldiers were no less valiant than their German counterparts. Their generals, however, had perfectly positioned them for trench warfare, while the German generals had figured out how to take maximum advantage of the tank.

Taken as a whole, American business seems to be fighting its own version of the last war — “Japan Inc.’s” 1970s invasion, fought with goods that cost less and held up better than anything American manufacturers could produce. Whether it was Toyota or Datsun for cars, or Sony, Panasonic or Mitsubishi for consumer electronics, they cleaned our clocks.

The sad fact is, in this war we were the surrender monkeys (who, even more embarrassingly, considered Velveeta to be a real form of cheese). We shifted our economy from manufacturing to finance and services, sending some manufacturing sectors to offshore partners in their entirety while abandoning others altogether.

At the same time, on the theory that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, we obsessed about process through disciplines like Lean, Six Sigma, and Theory of Constraints — not only to organize the manufacturing that remained onshore, but to organize all of the other work as well.

Which is unfortunate, because a lot of the work performed in modern businesses doesn’t fit the process model and shouldn’t be organized as if it did.

A quick refresher: Every business function has six characteristics. Depending on the function their relative importance ranks differently. They are:

“Process” is, by definition, a series of well-defined steps which, if followed correctly, yield repeatable, predictable results. It’s just the ticket for mass production.

Which is, for many businesses, either the last war or someone else’s war altogether. The same may be said of many business functions, only more so.

The process disciplines all assume that “better” always means lower incremental costs, higher throughput, and better quality. When you’re engaged in mass production, that’s usually a valid assumption to make for your factory, supply chain, and distribution (although assuming such things when you can consciously decide them instead is rarely a good idea).

Beyond that? Based on my exposure and experience, very little of the work that goes on in today’s companies fits the mass production model … incremental cost, capacity, and quality frequently matter less than keeping fixed costs low, being fast and responsive, and allowing exceptions, tailoring results, and including sales-worthy features and functionality.

These characteristics lie in the realm of business practices, not business processes … the realm where flexibility, quickness, and excellence hold sway. There’s no reason to expect methodologies designed to support mass production to deliver the right results, and lots of reasons to suspect they’ll fail at it.

My knowledge, though, comes from a non-random sample. Worse, I’m as prone to seeing what I want to see as anyone else.

We need data. You’re going to provide some (I hope … please?).

I’ve set up a simple survey form. It provides room for you to enter:

Fill out the survey form yourself (you’ll find it here) and spread the word, too. The more organizations that are represented, the more useful and valid the conclusions will be.

In the end, there’s just no substitute for actual evidence.


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my photoBob Lewis is a senior management consultant with Dell Services. He has published these columns once a week in one form or another since 1996.

Disclaimer: All opinions, statements, representations, allegations, images (if published) and anything else that appears here is the sole responsibility of the author. Dell has and had nothing to do with it, other than saying it's okay to continue publishing KJR.

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