The ‘missing link’: Do your processes support strategy?

Discussing the importance of understanding your organization’s mission, objectives and strategy before and during process design or improvement initiatives.

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Processes, by their nature, help organizations to orchestrate their resources and get work done.   The ultimate output of an organization’s core processes should be a product or service that a customer values and is willing to pay for. With this in mind, many process analysis techniques (quite rightly) encourage us to consider the customer--and any other relevant stakeholders--when designing or improving our process.   However, an additional but crucial aspect that warrants consideration is the organization’s strategy.

It is easy to be drawn into an illusion that all organisations in a particular industry or sub-sector must have identical processes.  If we were to examine the airline industry, for example, it is likely that all airlines will have processes enabling tickets to be booked, passengers to be boarded, aircraft to be cleaned ready for their next flight and so on.   Yet whilst all airlines might have these processes, the activities, goals and measures each airline deem relevant may differ substantially.

Let's take an example.  Imagine you were working for a budget airline.  You have been tasked with improving the cleaning process that takes place after a plane has landed and all passengers have left.  I have never worked for an airline, but I would expect that the airline would value speed on this and every other aircraft preparation process--the faster the plane can be turned around, the better its utilization. The airline may even be prepared to make reasonable compromises to get things done quicker -- perhaps a 'deep clean' could be performed overnight, with a quick rubbish clearance happening between flights.   The organization is pursuing a low-cost strategy: It wants to be the cheapest, and will place a high value on initiatives that reduce cost.

Contrast this with a luxury airline focusing on providing a luxurious service on long-haul flights.  The kind of airline where tickets cost a small fortune but you get a large seat (even in economy), free drinks and a free meal.   The speed in which the cabin can be cleaned is still likely to be important, but quality of the cleaning is likely to be crucial.  Whilst the organization will still have one eye on cost, they are likely to be pursuing quality above all else.  If you charge $10,000 for a first class ticket, your customers are going to be disappointed if they find coffee stain on their table and a screwed up copy of yesterday's newspaper in their seat-pocket!

This example shows two organizations pursuing very different strategies and aiming at different markets. One pursuing a low cost strategy, another aiming to differentiate through provision of a luxurious experience.  As illustrated above, the strategy (and markets) they are pursuing affects how the processes are designed, measured, and what is considered valuable.   It is crucial that we have an understanding of our organization’s mission, vision, objectives and strategy before and during our process design or improvement initiatives.  If we don't, we risk designing a process that is out of kilter with the organization’s aspirations.   To extend the example above, we risk designing a budget process for a luxury airline.

In summary: Knowledge of our organization’s ambitions and strategies is essential, and this knowledge can help us build better processes.  Absence of this knowledge is likely to lead to a mismatch that will disappoint our internal and external stakeholders.

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