Updated: Feb 27, 2019
Depending on your personal inclinations and preferences you may look at the picture of the Lego bricks with ecstatic delight and start building things in your mind. Or you may look at the picture of the blue balls and take delight in the neat way they are structured and organized.
Chances are, that if you love the Lego mess, you will find the neatly organized blue balls boring. And if your preference goes towards order and structure, you will look at the Lego and think "Oh horror! This needs to be tidied up."
Both approaches have their merits, but if you want to achieve something specific (like e.g. building the Lego Millennium Falcon with more than 7,500 pieces), structure is probably the right approach. The alternative is spending hours trying to find the right pieces. More time than you need for actually building the coolest space craft around.
Watch a LEGO Millennium Falcon being built (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UAdFerZMWc).
Something similar happens at work.
ENTER STRUCTURED PROCESSES
You may not be in the business of building Lego Millennium Falcons, but kudos to you if you are. Any which way, you want to achieve something. If you are in sales, you want to reach your sales targets. If you are in procurement you want to buy all your requirements at the right price. The reason is of course that time is money.
There, we said it. Actually, Benjamin Franklin already said it in 1746 in his "Advice to a young tradesman, written by an old one" in which he explains the concept of opportunity cost. It translates to spending your time on the most valuable activity (building the Millennium Falcon) and not getting tied up in activities that earns you very little money or even cost you money (searching for the right Lego piece).
Time saved might even be spent adding new valuable activities, such as building a LEGO Death Star, which you otherwise would not have time to build.
Structured processes break complex tasks into logical and manageable steps and ensure, that everything is in the right place at the right time. Because a lot of thinking goes into the design of the structured processes, less thinking is required for the execution, which speeds up the process considerably.
The LEGO Millennium Falcon comes with a manual on how to build it – step by step. The manual is a structured process, which tells you exactly which pieces you need at what time. If you change the order you may have to backtrack or even dismantle things to get back on track. A costly waste of time.
This leads to another observation:
ERRORS COST RESOURCES
Errors translate to additional use of (scarce) resources such as attention, time and money. In more severe cases, errors may translate to serious injury or loss of life. Which is why companies (and authorities especially) want to minimize errors.
The means can be compliance regulations, standard operating procedures, best practices etc. These tasks are generally placed in the hands of people who prefer rigid structures and for a good reason. Departments like Accounting, Quality Control or Regulatory Affairs use structured processes to mitigate, contain and correct errors. In this way they PROTECT the company and people using their products and services.
Structured processes are systematic because they take you from A to Z in specific, determined steps just like a Lego construction manual. Computers are exceedingly great at executing systematic, repetitive processes. Thus, the combination of structured processes and technology can achieve amazing results for the company.
In summary, the structured processes make it possible to FOCUS on VALUABLE activities; to minimize errors and be COMPLIANT; to apply TECHNOLOGY and therefore EXECUTE faster. All of this REDUCES COSTS and BUILDS VALUE leading to higher profits.
BRILLIANT – SO WHERE'S THE CATCH?
If structured processes are VALUABLE, FAST, EFFICIENT and COMPLIANT, why are they not used everywhere?
Well. Not all human activities and suited for structured processes. Tasks requiring a high level of creativity and human interactions for example.
In all organizations there is a balance between structured and more free-roam processes. For the reasons already discussed there is a push towards structured processes, but there is also a push-back. The push-back can happen for all sorts of reasons.
One of them is personal preferences. Some people are more motivated and inspired by the big, messy pile of LEGO bricks than by rigid structures. They thrive in this creative space and feel that rigid structures are a cause of de-motivation.
Most people want to do well at work. Maybe they are even incentivized by their organization to reach certain targets. If the systems provided becomes a hinderance to people doing their job, they often get creative. This is usually done by introducing small hacks, circumventions and "exceptions". Like using Excel sheets to handle data otherwise trapped inside complex systems. See our blog post on "Excel – the corporate curse" to learn more about that.
While these alternative processes and "workarounds" may do the job (at least on the short term), they are by their very nature NOT structured. Actually, they add to the mess. Also, unstructured processes tend to make sense to only the people using them.
While this is true for any process, technology is advancing moving the boundaries between what technology can and can't do. A technology like machine learning is currently running processes considered reserved for humans. In most cases they do them better (higher accuracy) and way faster. It may feel like the domain of people is getting smaller, but such technologies free up resources allowing people to do, what people do best. The structured processes taken care of, you can get creative.
JUST ONE MORE THING
Most organizations find that there is a gap between the structured processes, they THINK they have (or want to have), and the ones they ACTUALLY have. Things are usually a lot more messy than organizations plan for. Also, there is a huge gap between the structured processes captured by current technologies and the capabilities of the new. All gaps tie up resources.
The catch is reality. In this case the gap between what we THINK is going on and what is ACTUALLY going on. It is the gap between the technology we HAVE and the technology we COULD HAVE.
The good news is that its possible to escape the catch. Start by taking a walk through your company to see, what is ACTUALLY going on. Then decide to upgrade your technology appropriately to reach a new level of performance. Enjoy the results. And then repeat. Now that is a nice structured process!