by Bill Flury

Our project team was together around the table at our weekly Brown Bag lunch. That’s where we catch up with each other and share our ideas and concerns. George, our team’s work estimator and planner, brought up a subject that had been bothering him. He was upset by the new requirement from the corporate process improvement group. They are asking everyone to define and document the processes they follow. He complained that would be a lot of work. He said, “Look, I know what I do. Why should I have to write it down or draw a flowchart. I really don’t see any benefit in doing it.”

Genevieve and Ted responded. They had both previously worked at another company where the processes were well defined. They really liked the way things worked when their work was well defined. They both said that it was not only good for their company it was also good for them personally. They were eager to tell us about the benefits they got.

1. You Avoid Doing Useless Work

Genevieve asked us to think about the chaos on this project. Two people would sometimes be doing the same thing and they’d find out about it after they had spent time on it. Or, we would spend time on something early in the process that would be obsolete by the time it was really needed and would have to be redone.

In her earlier job, the processes were well defined and documented, Genevieve said. The process steps were all laid out and she could trust everyone else to do what they were supposed to do when they were supposed to do it. When she and everyone else involved followed the process, she never found herself doing work that was not useful. She could also look for and eliminate useless work. The bad stuff went away and nobody wasted time on it.

2. You Have Fewer (if any) Crises

Ted pointed out that when the process is not defined, you can never be sure that everything required has been done. Here’s where having a well-defined process gets you a big bonus. You never get to “Ooops! We forgot that task and have to work over the weekend to finish it!” When the process is defined and all the process steps are checked off, you don’t have to waste time going back over things to see if the job is complete. You know that you are done. That kind of certainty is a blessing. You don’t have to work late to catch up because of things being left undone.

3. Your Work Is Scheduled More Realistically

Ted continued, this time talking about the things that our scheduler, George, does. He said that, when there is no defined process, project estimators may not be aware of some of the tasks involved and, as a result, they underbid the job. When the processes are not defined, every estimate is just a guess as to how much work is involved. That is, perhaps, the biggest cause of headaches for the staff members who have to do the work. That is what turns their planned 40 hours of time into a 60+ hour work week. There’s no joy in that.

With good processes in place and being followed, estimators can see and estimate for all tasks involved in the job. Performance data on previous executions of the process can provide a sound basis of estimate for jobs that are similar to others. Estimates can be very accurate when all steps in a process are accounted for and comparable performance data can be found and used. When estimates are made this way you can be confident that the estimated 40 hours of work will be done in 40 hours. No more uncompensated overtime. That’s good for the estimator and good for the staff.

4. You Negotiate Your Schedule with Facts, Not Opinions

Genevieve then asked everyone to think about this situation. When you already have a lot of work to do and your boss asks you to take on some new, urgent task, you are defenseless if you don’t have a defined process. You are in no position to describe what tasks you would have to put off in order to take on the new work. You sound really lame when all you can say is, “Well, I’ll have to put something else off to do that.” And the boss says, “What?” – and you mumble your answer.

It’s much better when you can take the boss to the process chart and the two of you can discuss, in detail, how much effort the new task will require and then see, specifically, what tasks will have to be put off to match the effort required for the new work.

5. You Spend Less Time Training

Sally then spoke up. She said that she had read in Fred Brooks’ The Mythical Man-Month that adding people to a project running late will slow it down and make it even later. Why? Because the staff members who were already working hard to meet the deadline would have to take time to train the reinforcements in the process. She thought that having a defined process would make training easier and would help when we had to bring in extra help to recover from a slippage or handle an overload. She thought, and everyone agreed, that it would be better when you have a picture of your process you can show to the reinforcements. Then, instead of having to describe each step you would just have to be available for questions.

6. You Get Your Non-Work Life Back

As lunch ended we listed the benefits we had talked about:

  • You know what you have to do and you know when you’re done
  • You avoid useless work
  • Crises and your extra work to make up for them are eliminated
  • No uncompensated overtime is needed to make up for underestimates
  • You avoid the anguish of having to handle “urgent” along with regular work
  • Easier training means that bringing new people on board doesn’t detract from your productive time

Even George agreed that such savings could end our 60+ hour weeks. We might even find that we would have a couple of hours to think about how to improve what we do.

7. Bonus Benefit

Before we broke up, Genevieve and Ted said that there was one benefit we had not talked about but, it really meant a lot to them personally. That was the fact that they could now take their planned vacations whenever they wanted and would not have to worry about getting an urgent call about something that was supposed to be being handled by someone back at the office. In their prior organization, with defined processes in place, it was clear what had to be done and no calls were required. So, Genevieve and Ted added “Peace of Mind While on Vacation” to the list.

As we left, Ted said that he hoped we would get our processes defined and documented soon. He assured us that it would be worth the effort – that we would save time, be more productive, and would find work more enjoyable. He has worked that way, he should know.

A task checklist is one simple way to define your process and incorporate some of the benefits of this idea. Another common approach is to define processes in a procedures document. Have you ever drawn a picture of your process to see if the words are telling the right story — what you really do?

To read more about how to start obtaining these benefits, see Bill’s book, Draw What You Do.

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2 replies
  1. Bill Flury
    Bill Flury says:

    Thanks. I like to pass on good ideas by telling stories that illustrate them. Presenting the ideas as stories sounds a lot less threatening than calling them “lessons”. Also, it’s easy for the reader to identify with the idea when they can put themselves in the story. That’s the reason I wrote the book “Draw What You Do” — to let the reader jump into the story and learn how to define and document a process.

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