Goals and Processes

Whenever I find myself casting around for a topic to write about, I seem to always migrate toward one of my favorite conundrums: Goals and Processes. Is it goals that drive business processes, or is it processes that enable business goals? Because I have a little time, I think that I’ll go ahead and address this one some more.

Almost everything I see and read these days on this topic seems to be focused on the Process side of this question. It is interesting how the focus and primacy of management ideas and structures ebb and flow over time. In the past it did not seem to be such a Process focused set of business literature. I guess William Deming was one of the first to work in this area, and he did some ground breaking work. Having a Process focus is good from a predictability and repeatability point of view. Businesses like a predictable and repeatable outcome.

A good business process is like a security blanket. If you don’t know what to do, you can fall back on the process and hopefully expect to end up relatively close to where you were aiming to be at the end. Having a process reduces the risk and can remove uncertainty from the business.

At the risk of sounding like some sort of business contrarian I need to openly admit that I do not particularly ascribe to this way of leadership or business thinking.

For me an over reliance on process removes the value of people from the equation. They don’t Plan-Do-Study-Act as Deming said, they just follow the process. If they are following an industry “best practice” they probably are not even encouraged to think. They are part of a production line-like process. This seems to promote a very risk averse position for people. They can’t be wrong if they are following the process, and if they are wrong it is the processes fault not theirs.

I think a process is an extremely efficient and effective way to codify something that you have already done. That means that some way, somehow somewhere someone has already achieved the goal, and that the process has become the documented method that they used to achieve it. If you have been successful in manufacturing the first widget, then a production line process for all subsequent similar widgets would be called for.

When Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest, there was no known process associated for a successful summiting attempt. People had been attempting the summit since 1921, but it was not until 1953 that is was actually accomplished. It was only after he was successful that the process of creating a series of ever higher camps, and the selection of which specific routes provided the greatest probability of success started to coalesce. In fact it has now evolved to a situation where the process for climbing Everest is so well defined that even novice non-climbers are now being taken up the mountain escorted by seasoned mountain climbing guides.

I think the cost for the Everest “guided expedition” is approximately sixty five thousand dollars ($65,000) and takes several months to prepare and execute.

I think this is a little bit of hyperbole, but it does illustrate my point. It took more than thirty years to achieve the goal. There was no defined process that anyone could fall back on. Every attempt was breaking new ground. We also need to recognize that just because there is a process does not guarantee that each climb will be successful.

To date there have been about eleven thousand (11,000) expedition attempts to summit Everest, with the vast majority of them since the year 2000. This would indicate that the process is reasonably well defined. However there have only been three thousand (3,000) expeditions that have ended in success. These successful expeditions resulted in only approximately five thousand (5,000) individuals that have actually stood on the summit.

In the mean time it should also be noted that more than 260 people have died while trying to climb Everest. That means that for every 20 individuals that succeeded in climbing Everest, 1 paid the ultimate price.

Thank goodness for the internet and Wikipedia. Where else can you get facts and statistics like that so easily?

So, what does all this have to do with the discussion of Goals and Processes in business? As I said, I think it illustrates several points:

First, if something has never been done before, there is probably no defined process available for doing it. People knew the process for climbing mountains. They had been doing it for years. It took more than thirty years and many unsuccessful attempts before they climbed Everest. They ended up creating a new process in order to do it. If you are trying to do something in business that has been done before, you had better come up with a faster, better cheaper way of doing, otherwise being the second successful one probably won’t get you too much.

Second, it was not the “process” of climbing Everest that captured people’s imaginations. It was the “goal” of climbing Everest that did. It is difficult to get people committed to a process. It is far easier to get them committed to a goal. The same goes in business. It is the goal that drives people to succeed, not the following of a process.

Third, just because you have a process that has proven to be successful in the past does not mean that it will continue deliver success every time. Less than a third of the expeditions attempting Everest are successful. Even well defined processes can fall victim to external environmental issues or potential team issues from within. Expecting to follow a process to get you to a goal without being prepared to deal with the unexpected or unforeseen enhances the probability of not being successful.

Fourth, even if only one or two out of the entire expedition actually get to the top of Everest, the entire expedition is considered a success. The goal is to get someone from the expedition on top of the mountain. If the goal was to get everyone to the top of the mountain, no expedition would be considered a success, and we would still be searching for the process to do it. The idea is to make sure that success is clearly defined and that everyone can participate in it.

I think it is reasonably apparent that it is goals that inspire people and it is the attainment of those goals that most people are measured against. Processes are good in that they provide a guideline on how to go about achieving the goal. But just like the weather on Everest, or the makeup and capabilities of the team attempting the summit, there are always variables associated with achieving the goal that cannot be accounted for in the process.

Processes are at their best and most useful when they are simple and allow for variances based on the environment surrounding the goal. It is only in the most repetitive of manufacturing production lines that a process can be fully relied upon, and even then it is subject to the vagaries of the humans doing the work.

As an example of this I would point to automobiles. They are produced primarily in a production line; however the quality of some cars can vary significantly. They are all produced by the same process, but some are acknowledged to be significantly worse than others. Hence the concept of getting a “lemon”, and the creation of “lemon laws” to protect the consumers unfortunate enough to have purchased one of “those cars”.

Business is lead and inspired through the use of goals. Processes can be of assistance in attaining those goals, but it is the goal and the measurement of progress against that goal that is important in generating progress. It is when business supplants goals with processes as its primary focus that the business will start to lose its way.