Your organization keeps things simple and runs with a minimal amount of operational processes. Then a problem happens, your team does some sort of lessons learned and, as part of the action plan, your team decides that some processes need to be created or improved to avoid that from happening again. Nothing wrong there since that’s part of a continuous improvement mindset.
After several months or years, that cycle of learning and improvement may lead to an unintentional, overwhelming amount of processes that cross the tipping point where they cause more damage than help. I present in this article a few signs of what you should watch out for to know if your organization should revisit its processes.
1) Unclear understanding of the reason behind it
As mentioned, processes usually come as responses to problems. Even though the same issues may happen again in the future, it’s unlikely that the environment and the context will be the same or even similar in a second occurrence. Processes can be very well defined and documented but still miss the motivation, the environment, and the context that led to that change. Without these critical pieces of information, one could not understand if applying a process would make sense in a given scenario. That could lead to unexpected results and additional process tweaks that would dilute even more the original reason for the initial design.
For instance, assume that an organization had a data breach problem for the first time. It then decided to implement manual security code reviews to avoid data exposure issues in the future. The company improves its modus operandi, and after a few years, nobody can clearly articulate why they still do that. It was a process targeted to stop the bleeding in a specific situation but turned out to be the long-term solution. Changes can bring discomfort. So, it’s much easier to keep just doing it. If people are executing something without knowing the motivation behind it, you should re-assess it.
2) That’s how things are done here
How your organization responds to processes can also indicate how effective or efficient they are. While frustration can come from many different sources , process inefficiency and team frustration are correlated. As a matter of fact, in a recent study, 31% of the participants pointed inefficient processes as one of the main reasons for burnout. When people say that they follow a process because “that’s how it’s done here”, keep an eye on that. One may be saying that for lack of clarity (back to the first sign) but often, the frustration of having to execute it (lack of value, overhead, sense of waste, …) takes priority.
3) Sub-organizations have different incentives when defining processes
As a company grows, its subdivisions grow too. What started as a start-up with 10 people can become a complex matrix organization with several specialized teams like Security, QA, Engineering, PMO, Marketing, and so on. In general, process complexity is directly proportional to organizational complexity. As people are grouped in functional areas, communication channels increase, teams get more specialized, and their goals, incentives, KPIs get more and more specific to what they do. To achieve area-specific targets, teams set more rules around them to control their outcomes, but often those extra rules come at the price of impacting other organizations. For instance, if a QA org sets internal targets to report fewer false-positive bugs due to requirement misunderstandings, the Product Management and Engineering teams may be affected by the new process of having multiple rounds of reviews for the test cases. Those two teams have other internal goals that may not align with QA org’s goals leading to the perception of waste of time or lack of understanding. If your company doesn’t define processes based on strategic, company-wide goals, you may end up in a situation of multiple disjoint, niche-specific processes that would be highly ineffective and demotivational.
4) Creating processes is cheap
“What’s the cost of introducing this new process?” If that’s not a question that pops up when changes are being proposed, it may be a fairly decent indication that the direct and indirect costs are not being considered before implementing them.
Adding a new field in an issue tracking system may seem like a harmless tweak for a small organization. Now assume that 1) it takes additional 30s to fill that field for each new issue, 2) on average 500 issues are created per day across all projects, and 3) an employee costs on average $100/hour considering all the benefits. In this scenario, that single change would cost almost $10k per month.
Unless your organization considers the overall cost of implementing, training, enforcing, and maintaining new processes and validates if the benefits will outpace the costs, adding new processes will eventually impact the effectiveness of your company.
5) Perceived slowness over time
Finally, if you plot the time to execute an activity over the years and you notice an increasing trend, take a careful look at that. Slowness doesn’t always mean ineffective processes. Moving too fast sometimes brings quality issues that can impact the reputation of your products in an unreversible way. However, for instance, if the lead time between a feature request and its production release has doubled in the last 2 years, your group may have added so much complexity on engineering or peripheral processes (quality, security, privacy, …) that it’s now jeopardizing your company’s ability to compete. Watch out for any feedback from the team about slowness, and make sure that data is collected over time to evaluate your processes.
I presented five signs that can help identify if you have a problem or not in hand. They are indicators, and as any indicator, they do not drive conclusions. They can only support them. You may identify a single sign and have a process problem, but you can also have all five and still have the root cause(s) outside of your processes. In summary, pay attention to the quantitative and qualitative aspects of your organization, validate process changes with multiple stakeholders, and schedule regular (semi-annual or annual) checkpoints to see if you’ve crossed that tipping point.