Managing ‘Process Management' Print E-mail
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Written by Peter Bigelow   
Thursday, 01 April 2010 00:00

When personality enters the equation, process management seems to vanish.

Some things just seem to get to me, and one is the concept of “process management.” It’s not that I don’t like or believe in it. Over the years I have spent tons of money successfully working to improve processes, and have seen firsthand the benefit improved process management can yield. There really is a solid return on investment when improvements are made and productivity improves.

But what gets me is that process management seems to only matter when applied to “things” vs. “people.”

Everyone – regardless of industry or job function – loves to tout improvements derived from applying a process improvement to a “thing.” This may include manufacturing equipment – hardware or software – end-products – newly developed or longstanding favorites – and even bricks and mortar (or elimination of same). However, when the process that needs improvement exclusively involves personnel, and someone’s name is identified with said “process improvement,” watch everyone shy away.

By identifying names, I am referring to when the process improvement involves people who work with people (versus equipment), and when the processes that those people should be developing or following are associated with a small number of colleagues, which means those involved are easily identified. Usually, those people work in externally focused departments (sales, purchasing, administrative functions such as HR and accounts payable and receivable). The process management challenge is to improve the level of service, support or value-add that would create a solid relationship in processes that have heavy interpersonal versus machine-driven interaction. And it is not just the supplier/customer relationship. In any situation that involves people – supplier, customer, consultant, employee – friend or foe – when personality enters the equation, process management seems to vanish.

Some examples: When someone evaluates a plating process and comes up with an optimal chemistry, preferred timing and sequence, or improved equipment or configuration, they tout their process management skills and the resulting improvement as a major victory. However, when dealing with the timing and sequence of involving people in, say, periodic capability updates with customers, or the frequency and “configuration” of communication between key suppliers and purchasing, or even just being more visible with key decision-makers at specific customers or suppliers, those involved often shy away from dealing with the situation. Far worse is if there is a problem, almost everyone will assume the ostrich position: put their head in the sand and hope no one notices the deafening silence caused by a lack of process or management.

This is not to say initiatives don’t take place in people-driven processes. But too often these efforts manifest themselves as software-focused “interfaces” or “portals” – to create a cyber impression of involvement and progressive process management so to improve how people are dealt with – without actually helping the managers tasked with dealing with those people. Others will periodically take momentary actions of heroic brilliance led by an employee who tries to assist. Yet, if the action is not embraced with appropriate reward and recognition, and then adopted and implemented as a true process improvement, then it is not truly process management.

When process improvement exclusively involves people, rather than focusing on process improvement, we tend to deal with only the most serious problems, and even then not in the context of process improvement, but in a superficial, expeditious way.

Using the most basic definition, we are all job shops that cannot create demand or inventory product for future customers, but must react to customers’ specific technological as well as volume needs, responding only when they want it. What differentiates us all – for better or worse – is the level of support and service we offer; the relationships we have with our suppliers, and our abilities to pull together diverse subcontract capabilities to satisfy a pressing customer need. In short, what differentiates us is our ability to interact with … people.

And yet, we tend to not focus as much on process improvement in the very areas that could and will best differentiate us. Yes, cutting-edge software or web portals may help, but do they really address what customers want? We might have the most technologically savvy staffs, but if they don’t want – or know how – to interact with customers consistently and effectively, what is their use? We may be able to identify customers’ or suppliers’ problems, but if we explicitly or implicitly cop an attitude that communicates that we are not the ones who should help, how can our role be viewed as value-add?

While most companies have undergone extraordinary measures to improve internal design and manufacturing process management, I would bet that if the folks at ISO really focused on processes that involve suppliers and customers, most companies would not qualify for certification. Which brings me to the importance of embracing all the processes that link your company with the people to which you are most trying to provide value: customers. Only by making sure you apply the best available processes and people management so you are consistent in how well you treat all the related people – suppliers through customers – can you begin to focus on providing the value-adding process management they all seek.

Disney and Apple seem to get this. Disney parks are consistent in their customer focus and process management to make sure that all customers (“guests”) feel they had the best experience and received the greatest value for their money. Ditto with Apple; its retail stores emphasize service, support and the total “Apple” experience, and hence, the value-add of buying its products and much of its brand loyalty.

In our industry, the highest level of value-add is in supporting engineers who create cutting-edge technology with the often-invaluable manufacturability input we can offer. It’s about making the buying experience easy and seamless for that engineer or the buyer who is under pressure to cut all costs. Value-add is building the personal relationship of being the company that can “make it happen.” And yet, when resources are committed, investments made, and HR reviews given, the people side of process management is all too often the area ignored or neglected.

If only managers and workers realized how important their attitude, commitment and over-the-top involvement means to the bottom line of their customers, as well as their colleagues. Going above and beyond is great, but when that attitude, skill set and commitment are part of the process management – process improvement – then true value-add will be provided to customers and suppliers.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (imipcb.com); This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . His column appears monthly.

Last Updated on Friday, 26 March 2010 09:52
 

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