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Save the Orphans! Every Business Process Should Have an Owner

If processes were people, the “orphans” would be the homeless kids wandering aimlessly in your business.

Save the Orphans!

One of the most important realizations for any business owner, who is new to the topic of process management, is that their business already has processes, whether they realize it or not. These so-called latent processes arise on their own as habitual workflows, created on the fly by managers, employees, workers, and even external temps, or contractors.

With a concentrated effort on process management some of these workflows become full-fledged business processes and are documented as such. This however often relates only to the most important ones, while others are left to their own fate.

And thus the orphans are born. These are the workflows that were left out of your process management framework, either intentionally or by omission. And make no mistake here: These are processes and the only difference between them and the managed ones is that they were abandoned behind an artificially drawn line.

Is it a problem? It could be and a one hard to spot at first.

If you select only a few processes to manage and leave others out in the cold, perhaps because you consider them to be unimportant or unworthy of your attention, this divergence will only grow wider over time. And the sad result may be that in a few years your process matrix will not represent what’s going on within your organization or business.

Here’s a story to illustrate what I mean:

There is a huge industrial concern in my home city, which employed tens of thousand of people in its heyday and later almost went broke, partly due to the grave mismanagement of its processes.

In the 1990s, there was a period where the company wanted to tackle the issue of process management head on and hired one of the best business consulting companies in the world to map and optimize their business processes and operations. Tens of process consultants were working on the assignment for months, going through the whole hierarchy, from the lowest paid worker to the CEO, mapping every process in every department according to the overall corporate structure.

The efforts and the cost were staggering. But the result was the first complete map of the business processes of the whole concern, as well as recommendations for a complete reengineering of those very processes. Reengineering was very trendy then (this was before its flagship, Enron, went down like the Titanic of its time), so some bold plan like this was to be expected as a way of justifying the huge bill.

Yet the whole project broke down the moment the concern started to implement the reengineered process structure. Things were breaking down left and right, both virtually and figuratively, and nobody, including the consultants (not speaking of the management) knew what was going on. Within weeks, the problems escalated to such huge proportions, that the whole plan had to be stopped and the concern returned back to its old, habitual ways.

There was an investigation afterwards, of course, to find out who was to blame for this colossal mess. The result was something most of the long-term employees knew anyway, but somehow failed to convey to those hired process consultants: The concern’s managerial and department structure was one thing, but the real operations were something completely different.

The investigation revealed that there was a shadow managerial structure running the company, circumventing incompetent managers and directors. The real decision-makers were people without significant roles within the official power structure. These capable individuals were fixing problems and putting out fires on the fly, while the supposed directors and top managers were eating their lunches and getting driven around in company limousines from meeting to meeting.

It’s no wonder then, that the brave new plan fell apart the moment it was introduced. It assumed, of course, that the actual processes reflected the concern’s principal structures, but as these were introduced decades ago and left untouched for ages, that unfortunately wasn’t the case.

The problem of orphans is basically the same. If at one point you decide to manage only a part of your business processes and leave other supporting workflows untouched by your systematic process management, the result might be a growing division between your process matrix and what is actually going on.

So the basic rule is to treat your orphans right: Don’t rely too much on your process diagrams, but rather watch closely what is really going on within your business. Organize regular check-ups and process reviews and if you find a new or overlooked repeating workflow that wasn’t included into your original process matrix, fix it.

And remember that every orphan should have an owner, who is then responsible for its care: maintenance, improvements, reliability, reporting, etc.

Good business process management should be quite thorough and up-to-date, rather than rooted in obsolete process diagrams and tools that only cover the selected part of what’s going on for real.

Realistic process management never loses touch with reality in the first place and if process orphans are wandering around an organization, it’s only a sign of problems to come. So, take care of your kids!

Robert Vlach, February 12, 2019

Business consultant, writer and EUpreneur. Proud founder of Procesoid and Na volne noze — one of the largest national freelance communities in Europe

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