Strong Processes, Weak Culture
January 9, 2012
And once again, I only am half-convinced. The main risk I see here is to sanctify institutional objects (processes) rather than encourage a culture of continuous improvement in the organization.
The Lean approach is quite telling in this respect. My understanding is that multiple tests and successive approximations allow for continuous improvement in a global perspective (the Lean System Thinking). As such they provide more value to organizations than processes blindly applied by managers reduced to a mere role of supervisors by this Taylorist approach.
Processes as Alignement tools
Processes present a limitation in that they encourage what Jim Collins (in Built to Last), or Harvard Business Review’s Leading by Leveraging Culture , call a weak culture. The assumption is that teams are not aligned enough with business strategy, so it is necessary to put prescriptive processes in place to ensure for teams alignment.
As enterprise processes are implemented in very complex and expensive software, they become somehow the implementation of the strategy. As such, all decisions regarding choices and implementation of these processes are from executive, VP, CTOs etc … Operational units, i.e the team that will be using these processes on a daily basis eventually are hardly ever consulted. This way, the processes acquire a Top-Down characteristic and the organisation enter into what Thierry de Baillon calls the Taylorist Knowledge : everything is in place to feed the weak culture.
A strong culture organisation does not need that much strong processes. Executives and VP know that teams are aligned and have the capacity to implement processes / tools / automation needed to perform their tasks and contribute to the goals of the organization. The processes are then bottom-up, operational units validate processes that have proven successful, as in the Lean culture. This is somehow in line with Scott Berkun recommendations related to Enterprise Social Software implementation in his hypertextual interview.
A striking example: Zara. In the extremely fast-paced world of Fast Fashion, where hundreds of new products are developed on a weekly basis, there is no ERP ! They do not want to freeze the process in a system that makes changing them too complex.
Prescription and Culture
From my experience in managing IT projects, I notice that the more prescriptive a method is and the more it embodies a self-powered weak culture. Example: PMI, RUP or CMMI.
On the other hand, the less prescriptive the method is the more it encourages initiative, successful participation and a strong culture. Example: Agile or Lean. The excuse whereby the processes are necessary because the teams are not aligned provides, in my opinion, more information on the lack of leadership of management teams than on the alleged lack of professionalism of the operational teams.
Culture eats Processes
My 2 cents is that the 21st century organisation needs more a strong culture than it needs strong processes. At operational teams level, this strong culture will naturally spawn the concern of continuous improvement for global optimization of the organization.
During these 20+ years in the knowledge economy I have observed that processes sanctified as institutional objects via their implementation in expensive software tend to promote top-down approach, to alter motivation and to result in sub-optimization while being blindly applied. They become objectives while they only are means to achieve a goal.
To paraphrase the great Peter Drucker : “Culture eats Processes for breakfast.”
Disclosure : there already is a great discussion with Bertrand, Thierry and many others on the french version of this post