Thursday, July 30, 2015

Process Flow Diagrams

USMC supply system process diagram.
Most full time employees have a keen understanding of their daily processes. However, others, outside the organization, can easily become frustrated when they have to get involved in a process they don't understand. We experience this when we visit the DMV, file our own taxes, etc.

I learned a great way to solve this problem when I was a student at the Naval Academy in the early 1990s. As a midshipman, I had the rare opportunity to participate in a teleconference with Dr. Deming. Dr. Deming is known for his significant contributions in business management throughout Japan after World War II. In the mid-1980s, his Total Quality Management (TQM) teachings were adopted by the U.S. Navy and branded as TQL (L for leadership).

I paid close attention to Dr. Deming's comments during his conference call since I was raised by a father who spent a career in quality assurance.

The key issue Dr. Deming spoke about, that was actionable for me, were his comments about process diagrams. He pointed out that businesses need to diagram their processes, with names below each box of the person responsible for each step. This point stuck with me for two reasons. First, because it was an epiphany; and, second, because he was a bit of a curmudgeon about it. I got the impression he'd consulted to many businesses, over many decades, that didn't follow his simple, sensible advice.

Process Flow Diagrams

Process flow diagrams are very simple to create. Here's a real world example I developed in the Marines. While creating process diagrams, both in the military and in the corporate world, I refined my technique beyond what I learned from Dr. Deming into a highly effective tool.

Each box in a process diagram represents a step in the process for a particular task. (In my example, commodity is military-speak for customer.)

The text inside the box is a short description of the step. The first word inside the box is the department responsible for that step. If you have more text than can fit in a box then you may need to break that into multiple steps. 

Three items are listed under each box.

The first item is the job description of the person responsible for that step, along with an employee's name.

The second item is the most likely problem (MLP) encountered that holds up that step.

The third item is the solution (Sol) to the MLP. In other words, how to avoid the problem in the first place. 

Real World Reception

In the real world, this document can be received positively or negatively. A lot depends on how well an organization's processes are thought out. When I shared my process flow diagrams with my commanding officers, they were very well received. After all, the military has well established procedures, even if they're not always obvious.

In the civilian world, I got a lot of push back at one company I worked at (not Apple). No one had a clear understanding of the organization's internal processes. Initially, that surprised me when I started working on this simple, side project. Then, it became clear I was asking managers questions about things they didn't know, but should. This resulted in unresolved finger pointing and passing the buck. That organization reinvented the wheel over and over. Needless to say, it was an ineffective organization to work in as I discovered most every procedure was handled ad hoc.

Good definitions make for clear ideas.

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