Is there a better way to say process improvement than saying process improvement?

"Process improvement".


If you've ever had a corporate job you know about process. Sorry, I mean capital-P Process.

Nominally, process is how you—yes, you—as a good worker take something from point A to B to C to ... to the End. Maybe it's metal fabrication. Maybe it's paperwork fabrication. Either way the idea is to transform things from their original state to a final state.

Just typing that word makes my blood pressure spike... process.

You see, in the best scenario, process—a set of written rules that you follow to get from start to finish—helps you Get The Job Done Quickly And Correctly. But in the worst case, process does the opposite: it's out of date, it's wrong, it's confining, it's stifling, it's not the best way but it takes seven weeks and four review boards to change so whatever it's good enough, it's the way we say we do things when our boss asks but in reality we each have our own list of steps that actually gets the job done. And so on.

Beating around the bush here—sorry. Process improvement. I don't mind doing it. I wish it was called something else more interesting, but it's not. I really spend time at work thinking, "how can I do this boring task way faster?" Or, "how can I write some software so that I can just push a button and do my work for me?" Or, "why does this work standard say I have to do these 17 steps when we only really use the output of 7 of them?"

But there's a limit to the amount of things you can improve by yourself. To really knock things over, you need to organize a team[1]. That's the leap I'm trying to make at work. Yesterday day I wrote some words about working smarter not harder. Creating a team, and getting them to Move, is perhaps the archetypical way to work smarter. I've never had much trouble doing that outside of work. Organizing a professional society or alumni club or whatever, it's always been second nature to recruit people, give them a vision, get them to work together, and then light out after some goal.

Then this year I thought: why not just do it at work the same way I do it out of work? And that's what I've been doing. This week I ran our first Performance Improvement Group (PIG) on our team, just to do simple things like find opportunities to automate work that we all hate but have to do, and share ways to do our everyday work faster. It's not all that inspiring—it's no moon shot—but it saves time and money, and for anyone that wants to get into it there's a chance to learn some coding. And it's had a secondary effect where more people just drop by my desk and ask if I can help them with things. Now, it's definitely not that I know more things. What's happening, I think, is that now there's an environment where people can question the most basic things that they're doing, that now they can listen to that internal voice that thinks that there's got to be a better way. And then what happens is that two people will come to me with the same problem, then you can do a little work and hit two targets with one shot.

All of that is within the team—maybe two dozen people at most. The next iteration of this is going to be inter-team, connecting systems engineers from different teams to share what they're doing and ruthlessly steal from each other. Connecting different teams will definitely be a forgiveness-not-permission kind of affair (for good or ill, managers know how to guard their territory), but there's so much more opportunity to wipe out duplication where it's not needed and bring the best ideas to the top and leave room to experiment where you can, etc.

So, inasmuch as process improvement is about getting more things done better and being open to the idea that the world is always changing and improvement implies changing to keep up, I'm in. If process improvement is about ossification at the best state at a given time, and then intentionally fighting against the inevitable change in the world, I'm out.

[1] Ed Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang: "One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain't nothing can beat teamwork."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *