If you can’t describe what you are doing as a step-by-step process, can you really be confident in what you are doing? Institutions documenting their processes can derive many strong benefits such as easier knowledge-transfer and improved interdepartmental collaboration.
Many elementary schools participate in a fun exercise that helps young students communicate more effectively and understand the importance of details when explaining a process. If you are unfamiliar with the “PB&J” experiment, it goes something like this….
Teacher: “Ok kids, I need help. I’m really hungry. So I’m going to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The thing is, I’m not too sure how to make it. Can you help? What do I need to do first?”
Students: “Put the peanut butter on!!!”
Teacher puts the peanut butter jar over the table. Nothing comes out.
Students: “Noooo! You need to open it first”
Teacher opens jar. Flips peanut butter over. Nothing comes out.
Students: “Nooo! You need a knife!”
Teacher uses a knife and starts to put peanut butter on the table.
Students: “No, not the table. Put the peanut butter on the bread!”
As this exercise progresses, the students start to catch on. Everyone knows how to make a PB&J sandwich, if you know what a PB&J sandwich is. Yet when you are asked to explain the process, you realize the amount of detail that actually goes into something so simple.
Years later, when these kids grow up to become business leaders, they find themselves in the same situation. They can describe a high-level process of a common procedure, but there is a lack of detail. Where should they look to get a detailed description of what they need to do and how they’re going to do it? Many organizations are missing documentation to help understand their processes and answer crucial questions that support the organization’s capabilities.
- What is the activity/project I need to complete? It’s impossible to move forward effectively if we don’t know what we’re trying to accomplish or how we’re going to do it.
- What are the steps involved in the process? By outlining a process with the correct level of detail, a business leader can view if there is a gap that has been missed or redundancy in the process. Arranging procedures in order will allow those involved with a process to identify if a task is currently managed in the most efficient and effective way.
Ever try making a PB&J without a knife or spoon? It gets messy….
- What will I need to complete the operation? How something is implemented or what is needed from a technology or product perspective is important to identify. Understanding what resources are required to complete a step can assist in executing a task effectively and efficiently.
Once we begin modeling our processes, we’ll want to make sure we include a risk perspective. Strategies and processes that don’t include a risk perspective are just fantasies.
- Why is a risk perspective important to my process models? What risks are there when we use a knife compared to a spoon? If we give one of those third graders a knife, do they have the appropriate motor skills to use that knife properly?
Are they aware that once you use the knife in the jelly, you need to wash it before you place it in the peanut butter? Why? Perhaps cross contamination can occur and the jelly, which is supposed to be refrigerated, is now in the peanut butter and causing bacteria build-up for the next unsuspecting family member craving PB&J.
The risk perspective is another example of how including the right amount of detail is important. It would be unrealistic to assume that all players are aware of all risks associated with business processes. Providing that detail not only allows individuals or groups to navigate more effectively and efficiently, but it delivers an additional perspective to decision-makers regarding when, where, and how to direct the business.
Finally, how do we know how to make a PB&J sandwich? It had to be taught to us somehow…
- Transfer of Knowledge: Companies know that there will be employees who come and go. Sometimes there are valuable employees who leave with a strong, in-depth knowledge of processes they were part of for years. So when a new resource comes in, there will be a significant gap in time before they have a strong understanding of a procedure. By documenting processes, the project team can establish a library of documentation that captures all relevant processes and knowledge. Thus, new employees or project team members will have an undisputed reference that can be interpreted easily. This documented process also allows for consistency across the organization for how similar procedures are to be carried out.
If you can’t describe what you are doing as a step-by-step process, can you really be confident in what you are doing? By documenting your processes, you:
- establish a more efficient step-by-step procedure
- determine what tools are in place or need to be in place to support a process
- identify risks to allow leaders to mitigate risks before they become catastrophic
- create solid references from experts to share throughout the organization
As with anything, balance is necessary. If we assume all key stakeholders involved with a project understand every step of a process, we’re likely to end up with people filling in gaps with their own assumptions, and that will eventually catch up to us in the form of problems. If we congest a process description with too much detail, we might overwhelm people and cause them to lose sight of the overall process. Providing the right amount of detail in our business processes allows players to understand what they’re trying to achieve, how they’re going to do it, resources they’ll require, and risks they need to be aware of along the way.
Remember, making a PB&J doesn’t have to get messy if you know the best way to explain it.