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Did you ask for that process sticker?

It’s the same routine every year. When the meterologists start talking about the first snow coming down (though they usually get it wrong) I take my car to the local garage and have it fitted with winter tires. And every year they put a little sticker next to my dashboard with the printed information that my winter tires are only good up to a certain speed limit.

Now, even though I’ve never felt compelled to go down an icy and snowpic_geschwindigkeitsaufkleber_190_Winterreifen_155_65_r15_77t covered
autobahn at 90mph (though even that’s below the limit printed on the sticker), the sticker is nonetheless important, because there will be regions through which I drive where there is no snow and ice and where I would usually drive really fast – at least faster than my winter tires are designed for. So that sticker serves to remind me about a limitation of a functioning system (my car) which becomes relevant when circumstances change.

Funnily enough, I have never met anyone who has complained about the sheer existence of speed limitations of tires. We know when we buy new tires that there’s a – sometimes hefty – difference of price between a tire that’s approved for 100 mph and one that’s approved for 140 mph. We accept that whatever type of tire we go for, we run a considerable risk if we push it beyond its tested and published (my sticker!) set of limitations. Just a case of common sense.

Of course, I along with everybody else rely on the fact that in Germany – as in many other countries – we have an independent institution which not only lays down technical guidelines for certain products but also conducts product tests and approves (or not) products. This is what makes the information on the sticker reliable.

Now imagine that you would have a sticker saying: “We think that – based on our experience and gut feeling – this is a good tire”. I for one would give it a miss.

Why do I mention this? Because what seems like common sense in the case of tires (and many other other products) is what many processes lack – reliable information about limitations, characteristics and capabilities, tested and approved for a particular set of circumstances. Many process managers seem to cling to the hope that their process will perform well under all circumstances. Even if that were indeed true (I have my own opinion on that) – how do they know? Did they run their process through a stress test? Do they know that their processes are stable under varying loads? Can they guarantee a predefined level of process performance, process quality, costs etc. irregardless of circumstance? With process costs reaching up to 40% (depending on industry) of a companies turnover and processes as the creators and enablers of a 100% of turnover, it does seem negligent if not downright irresponsible to rely on processes which do not come with at least some sort of lab test approval and some specifications on risks and limitations.

There’s one additional difference between a tire and a process: When we’re driving and for whatever reason a tire bursts, we’re not just faced with a simple replacement task, we know that there’s a danger of losing control over the whole car. But ask most process managers – or indeed project managers – to what extent they have analysed and tested their processes and in most cases you’ll find that they’ve focussed (if at all) on process internal issues only, usually taking the sunshine case of current perceived circumstances as the norm. Failing to think about and accept limitations as well as implications of processes will only clear the way for new projects designed to improve on existing and failed processes without ever supplying the information every process owner should be desperate to have: When can I use this process and when should I not use this process?

With the current inflation of process reengineering projects, many companies would do well to understand situational and performance limitations as characteristics of a process and that knowledge about these limitations is a mark of quality and not a detractor.

Oh, and I’d like that process information in big, bold letters and not in that small print hidden somewhere in a project report.

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