Monday, April 13, 2009

Process Structure

All processes share certain basic characteristics. However, this is rarely understood properly by most people responsible for defining processes in organizations. In this post, I would like to point out certain important characteristics that all processes possess that everyone should be aware of.

In my first post, I had presented ITIL’s definition of a process as “a structured set of activities designed to accomplish a specific objective”. In this post, I would like to expand on this definition and provide more details of the characteristics of processes.

To start with, let us ask ourselves why should a process exist at all in the first place? If we were to look at accomplishing a task or a project in an organization, the task or project would be broken down into a series of steps. The PMI body of knowledge acknowledges this as the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). Therefore, pursuing this line of thought, all we need to do is perform the steps and, hey presto, we have our project completed. Where does a process come into this then? Indeed, low maturity organizations do go about their business in the manner I have defined above. While it is true that certain steps need to be performed to accomplish an objective, there is a low maturity way of performing a step and a high maturity way of performing a step. When properly defined processes are utilized in performing the steps, the steps are accomplished in a mature way.

To illustrate my point let us consider making a change in an organization. Whether we use a process or not, the key step that has to be performed is the “Making the Change” step. In an organization that does not utilize processes, people simply charge in like rampaging bulls in the proverbial china shop and perform the step of “Making the Change”. In an organization where a change management process exists, the step of “Making the Change” is part of a sequence of steps that are performed when the change management process is called. The phenomenon is not unlike a function call in the C++ programming language. For example, when one needs something to be printed on the screen, the “printf” function is called with the text that needs to be shown on the screen. In a similar fashion the change management process is “called” with the details of the change to be made as its input. The output of the change management process is the completed change, the results of the change and other pre-specified metrics.

While it is not entirely accurate to compare a process to a programming language function call, it is useful to illustrate how a process works. A process is simply a predetermined sequence of steps that accomplish an objective. However, because they are predetermined, there is a certain stability and repeatability associated. In the previous example, when changes were being performed without a process, the success of the change was heavily dependent on the staff performing the change. However, in the case of the organization with the change management process, as long as the staff were capable of performing the steps outlined in the process, the success of the process was largely independent of their competence level. Also, with processes in place, the metrics defined as part of the process’s output will automatically be generated. In the case of no defined process, if the staff do not collect any metrics, no metrics will be produced at the conclusion of the step.

Having understood the correct methodology of process implementation in an organization, let us study the structure of a process.

To begin, every process has a trigger that starts off the process. In the example of the change management process, the trigger might be the submission of a change request.

A process also has inputs and outputs. The inputs can be information that is required to perform the process and the output can be a finished product or data that has been updated. Outputs can also include reports and reviews. The reports usually include metrics relevant to the process.

The structure of a process can then be further subdivided into 3 groups: Process Control, The Process itself and the Process Enablers. The figure below illustrates the information presented thus far (click on the picture for a larger view).

Process enablers consist of the resources, tools and other capabilities that are required to perform the process. This includes people, hardware, software, office space, knowledge, experience and any other resource that might be required to successfully implement the process.

Process Control is an important part of a process. It consists of the resources and framework required to monitor the process and make modifications if necessary. A process owner is part of the process control segment of a process and is responsible for the overall functioning and quality of the process. Other process control components are documentation, policy and process objectives.

The process itself consists of activities, procedures, roles and responsibilities, work instructions and metrics. This is where the actual steps of the process are carried out.

There are certain fundamental characteristics of all processes. They are listed as follows:

  • A process ultimately creates value for the organization

  • A process is based on certain predefined objectives

  • A process is started by a trigger event and takes one or more inputs and delivers defined outputs

  • A process once defined and setup should then provide repeatable results

  • A process should have the ability to take corrective action based on feedback, if required

It is, therefore, evident that the setting up of processes is no small task. The organization that spends adequate thought and effort in planning and setting up their processes will be rewarded with an efficient and harmonious work environment. If organizations ignore processes and simply charge in with a “sequence of steps” type of attitude they will endure numerous problems, delays, defects and customer dissatisfaction.

It is rare, however, that processes are correctly structured and deployed in most organizations. It is the authors hope that this blog site will assist in spreading awareness and contribute towards a paradigm shift towards greater organizational maturity.


  1. Vivek,

    Thanks for yet another informative post.
    I wish we had your expertise at our company.
    Things would be so much less chaotic if we had well defined processes in place.

    Keep up the good work.


  2. Vivek,

    All excellent points and well thought out. Thank you for sharing your informative and intelligent ideas, so we can continue to think about how to improve ourselves and our organizations.

    My next goal is finding the balance of the appropriate process, including efficient controls and auditability/repeatability, with the appropriate amount of process. When I achieve this I will be in a state of "process zen."