Process ownership is one of those ideas that sounds great but doesn't necessarily work all that well in the hurly-burly of organizations. It certainly makes sense in theory. To my knowledge, most organizations still embark on their process journey by attempting process improvement. And then as a given organization begins to make headway in redesigning processes for better efficiency or higher performance, sooner or later its leaders realize that the next logical step would be to put somebody in charge of those redesigned processes. Of course this thinking has been encouraged by BPM practitioners ever since pioneers like Michael Hammeri and Geary Rummlerii urged companies to establish formal process ownership in order to sustain the gains made by improving their core processes.
When implemented, process ownership can take any number of forms: Sometimes it's a loose confederation of equals who collectively manage a process; or the role may fall to a single individual manager who assumes the role of process manager in addition to his or her existing functional assignment. Sometimes the role is given to a staffer. (My partner Cherie Wilkins have written for BP Trends about the advantages and pitfalls of common varieties of process ownership.)iii
What then take up great amounts of time and attention are choosing and installing all the necessary apparatus of process management—the process management roles; the process measures and mechanics for data gathering, monitoring, and reporting on process performance; the acts and routines of decision-making and managerial action to steer and sustain process performance on a positive path.
All of this activity is good and necessary but something insidious and damaging tends to happen along the way: once formalized and set into routine, process management kind of sinks into the organization's bureaucracy—it gets adopted all too well to the rites and rituals of management. It loses a kind of power. The idea of process begins to be drained of its excitement and potential for triggering upheaval. It's just another form of managing. And real process ownership dies away.
How Real Process Ownership is Created
The following scenario is what I witnessed repeatedly while conducting process improvement projects at many different companies:
Early in the improvement effort, a design team is established, its members drawn from the functional areas that participate in the target process. As they first gather together some of these team members may be eager to redesign the process, but the more typical ones are a bit wary and hesitant. Some may be only marginally ready to engage in this effort—indeed, they may be there primarily to protect their turf. Some of them may even be there literally to throw as many obstacles in the way as possible (sometimes because they have been ordered to do so by their superiors) or to make sure nothing in their area ends up having to change, or to make sure other areas get blamed for process problems.
In those early stages I don't kid myself that I have a coherent, collaborative design team. Instead, I expect to shape the members into such a team as we progress. So one of the speeches I make in those first weeks (usually when we start to uncover and discuss process deficiencies) goes as follows: “Each of you comes from a specific area, maybe Finance or Production or IT. But your role on this team is to be more than a representative of your area. For the duration of this project, on behalf of the company, you own this process, all of it, as it exists today. So when we analyze the process and find out things that are wrong, in pointing them out you are not fixing blame on someone else because any problems you see are your problems to solve.”
Then, as the analysis proceeds and fingerpointing occurs from time to time, I'll intervene and say, “Now who owns this process?” and I'll get a begrudging acknowledgement that the culprit does. And gradually, session by session, real ownership comes about.
At first team members begin to see and understand parts of the process that were unknown to them before. They begin to recognize the reasons why people upstream and downstream from them behave as they do. They begin to develop some amount of empathy for each other and some respect for the contributions of everyone along the process sequence. That's Stage 1 of process ownership.
The second stage is reached when the design team members realize that they really do own all of the shortcomings and difficulties of the existing process, that the process is actually of their own collective making, and that, together, it may really be possible to make things much better. They begin to feel they are authentically empowered to change things and that the collective knowledge and willpower of the team members is sufficient to upend all their current difficulties.
The third stage of process ownership is reached when the process has been redesigned from the collective ideas and passions of the team members. Now they can't wait to get this design implemented. While they may face an uphill battle in getting others to accept their thinking, they are personally convinced of the great value of their work and passionately committed to the design.
Now we have achieved real process ownership. There is a sense among the design team members that this effort has been revolutionary. Working relationships have been altered. On this team at least, the functional silos have melted away. The team members want to continue working this way, having each other's backs, reaching across lines to collaborate and support each other.
But this of course is also the grand turning point of the project, where the organization either gets the design implemented and achieves its goals or fritters away the opportunity. Along the way it also either harnesses the psychic energy it has generated or allows it to dissipate. As the design team members return to their normal roles, they can gradually forget what it was like to be on that team and the opportunity for permanent process ownership dies away. And even with a well-run implementation, it's hard to sustain the excitement and commitment created during the process redesign, the feeling of democratic process ownership. It was a temporary and unnatural organizational sub-culture, lost when followed with a deadening sort of bureaucratic process management of roles and rules and metrics.
Sustaining Real Process Ownership
There are three things that can be done to keep alive the powerful version of process ownership generated during improvement efforts. These ideas are all ancient history but they're not necessarily practiced consistently; in isolation they may not have sufficient impact, but together they can do much to sustain real process ownership:
- Permanent process teams
One way to sustain the commitment and energy of the design team is to convert them into a permanent team that collectively manages the target process. They might have to be led by a titular process manager but they can have a voice in ensuring their dream process gets implemented and is managed as they had conceived of it.
Giving process performers the authority and means to make some choices can be an effective way to sustain broad process ownership. Examples of this abound in some service industries where employees have been empowered to do whatever they can to “delight customers”, but the idea is just as feasible in other lines of business. Installing a permanent process team composed of people who work in the process is itself a form of empowerment.
- Continuous improvement
This gets a lot of lip service but the fact is that many process improvement efforts are a “big bang” followed sometime later by another big bang, often triggered by some looming threat or change in business. But the small-scale grinding away at bottlenecks and waste is not common practice, even in places claiming to be “Lean” shops. But hands-on continuous improvement on small teams (such as a permanent process team) is a way to carry on the involvement of process performers in improving their own lot. It does, however, take organization and effort to apply this intelligently rather than just have a bunch of teams having meetings and doing “improvement stuff”.
So what is real process ownership? It is collective in nature, democratic, fueled by the energies of people allowed to design and manage their own work. Y'all might be thinking I am dipping into the argot of leftist revolutionaries in describing real process ownership, and yeah, that's kind of it. Hard to describe to anyone who's not experienced this unleashing of excitement and brainpower in a work setting. For those who have, though, you know it's intensely gratifying. Addictive, even.
iHammer, Michael, Beyond Reengineering: How the Process-Centered Organization is Changing Our Work and Our Lives, HarperBusiness, 1996.
iiiRamias, Alan and Cherie Wilkins, “Varieties of Process Ownership”, BP Trends, July 2009.