Don’t over-invest in high-level process design
Should you design your process at the 30,000 foot level before the 5 foot level? What level should you focus on? If you only have 3 days to invest in process improvement, do you pick a major process and design at a high level or pick one element and dive into the details?
These are valid questions and should be considered. However, also consider that there is only so much impact you can have at 30,000 feet. Yet many people want to spend a lot of resources and time here. They want the high-level process design to be good.
Here is my conclusion: for many processes, when designing at a high level, the difference between the best and the worst isn’t that different.
When I watch a team going through a engineering change process, or a order receipt process, or a new customer setup process, I see only subtle differences at the high level.
Consider the example of an engineering change process. You decide on a change. You engineer the change. You communicate to purchasing, quality, manufacturing. You validate the information. You update the system. You validate the execution. You launch.
At a high-level, there are plenty of tweaks you could make. You could decide when to make a handoff, or who makes the handoff. But these are only a few design components. That process I explained could be very, very good or very, very poor depending on the details. It’s the details that make a process like this work. It’s the details of what the quality engineer does when they get it, and how they perform those activities. It’s the judgement of manufacturing on the impact of the design change on risks within the process. It’s the completeness and follow-up with the supplier on the communication handoff. This is where the process succeeds or fails, not the high-level design.
This is not an absolute. There is plenty of value in considering high-level design. This is especially when innovation is considered. One process is go to the book store, browse, hope they have what you want, stand in line, buy it, drive home, and start to read it. Another is sit on the couch on your Kindle, search for the book you want, buy it with one click, and start reading it instantly. That’s a major difference at a high level. However, the details still matter greatly when doing this work.
So don’t expect too much from trying to design your process at the 30,000 foot level. Most of the real improvement comes from rolling up your sleeves and getting into the details. Yeah, that’s harder, but that’s what separates great processes from troubling ones.
Reflection question: How do you know in your organization when to work at a high-level versus a detailed-level?
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