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In Praise of Process

June 9, 2016

Administrators, especially those in the public sector, are often criticised for an undue focus on process. They are accused of mindlessly following the rules laid out in some arcane book of pettifogging rules, rather than focusing on achieving results, helping people, improving the bottom line. But this is often because those doing the criticising are (justifiably) held up from what they want by these rules. The most extreme example I saw of this was a grant applicant who stated that ‘the Minister should show some leadership by funding our application.’

There are several things wrong with the privileging of outcomes over process. First, it is usually (not always) the case that the processes have been carefully considered over the years and adjusted when they are seen not to be working. Sometimes that is not the case, but at least in administrations I have been exposed to, there has been an acceptance that poor process needs to be fixed – even if it sometimes takes a while to do so!

Another problem with an outcome focus is that outcomes are measured so rarely, while process is all about us. Outcomes sometimes take years to eventuate, are influenced by a host of environmental factors that are outside our control or to put it another way, are the result of plain luck. A prime example of the latter is the economy; an individual organisation has very little influence on economic conditions, but this will be a significant driver of sales, profits, income and many other key performance indicators. And sometimes the desired outcome, such as an educated adult or successful environmental remediation, will occur a decade or more after the work has been done by a primary school teacher or by an environmental lobby group. In these circumstances, we need a guide, and that guide is often in the form of good process.

Considering process as well as the bottom line is, of course, one of the features of the balanced scorecard approach. And quality assurance reviews are almost entirely assessments of adherence to process.

Even in the more short-term and simpler environment of a sporting contest, process can be prized over results. How often do you hear coaches making comments such as ‘We only need to keep doing the right things and results will come’? Accordingly, they measure large volumes of data about what the players have done: in football, for example, tackles made and missed, yards gained and accuracy of kicks among many others. In other words, process measures rather than the actual results of points scored and matches won.

This brings us back to my main interest, that of performance measurement. Because outcomes are often distant, contested and hard to attribute, they are often not good bases on which to measure performance. (I accept that if outcomes can be reliably measured, this is ideal). Normally, process measurement is easier. If processes are logically linked, by a combination of experience and theory, to the likelihood of achieving an outcome, then focusing on doing things right and measuring the extent to which they are done right will help to achieve the desired outcome.

© Numerical Advantage 2016
http://www.numericaladvantage.com.au

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From → Articles, contrarian

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