Process improvement. Have we been wrong all along?

Have we been wrong all along about process improvement where process have actually created drone-like behaviors? That produces a workforce who exist just to follow processes, avoiding innovation and slowing down the ability to adapt to change? 


Check out this fantastic presentation from Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in 2009, guiding Netflix company culture. It’s great on many different levels and disrupts traditional thinking towards core values and company culture.

I’d like to hone in on the part that cut close to the nerve for me as a believer in the power of process improvement.

First Hastings sets the scene, reminding us that growth increases complexity, chaos emerges, process emerges to stop chaos. In his opinion “No one loves process, but it feels good compared to the pain of chaos”.

But this brings benefits…

Strong near-term outcome. 

A highly successful process-driven company. 

  • with leading share in its market
  • minimal thinking required
  • few mistakes made - very efficient
  • few curious innovator-mavericks remain
  • very optimized processes for its existing market

Then the market shifts. 

  • market shifts due to new technology or competitors or new business models
  • company is unable to adapt quickly, because the employees are extremely good at following the existing processes, and process adherence is the value system
  • company generally grinds painfully into irrelevance due to inability to respond to the market shift

It can’t be true... surely!

Have we been promoting a healthy process culture when all along this actually results in drone-like behaviours? That produces a workforce who exist just to follow processes? And that spurns innovation and slows down our ability to adapt to change?

Not quite. I challenge some of the assumptions that have been applied, and still believe quite the opposite relationship exists between process culture and the ability to adapt.

A healthy process culture does not mean blindly following procedure. To me, process culture means we talk process with each other. We’re aware of how things need to be done, and the boundaries we’ve set. It creates an environment where processes are easier to examine and challenge, and indeed anyone can challenge the right way.

So what happens when the market shifts and we need to respond? A healthy process culture means we know how we operate, and we can use this as an immediate platform for our creativity. We can hone in more quickly on the pressure points, and examine what needs to change. We understand who needs to be involved in discussions, we understand which products, processes and teams may be affected, and which IT systems are impacted.

In other words, our process culture gives us a head start on our competitors, and a thinner gap to catch up on if there is a market disruption.

A healthy process culture is people-centric. It provides a base of process knowledge to assist the creative process. It supports innovators to dream up improvements. It improves the abilities of teams to execute new ideas. It certainly does not turn our people into blind process followers.

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