Why a process is not just a flow diagram

People tend to confuse a process with just a diagram. Of course, a diagram can be used to understand and define a process. There are various definitions of a process. From a business perspective, the most common process definition I have come across is “a set of interdependent activities that consume resources to deliver a desired outcome”.

As you can see in this definition, there are three key characteristics of a process:

  1. Delivering of a desired outcome
  2. Activities that are interdependent
  3. Consumption of resources

In order to avoid ambiguity and misinterpretation, it is advisable to define a standard for each of these characteristics. Let us analyse each of these characteristics in more detail.

  • Desired outcome

This is the critical characteristic and also the essential driver of a process. If there was no desired outcome, there need not be a process.  In management, these are also referred to as goals. There can be various goals. It is good to create a hierarchy of goals – start with a very high level goal such as Make Business Successful.  This can be then further broken down into next level of goals like Increase Revenues, Increase Business Profitability, Establish Brand Image, etc. Each of these can further split to nail down achievable, practical goals.

Note: Goals can also be broadly grouped as Management Goals, Operational Goals and Support Goals to make them manageable. This makes for a separate blog topic.

  • Interdependent activities

Activities are the lowest level units in a process. Again, levels can be perceived by different persons or organizations in different ways. What is lowest for one can be a higher level for another.  What needs to be borne in mind is that this level depends on the ability and capacity to measure or monitor the activity, i.e. availability of employees, systems, etc.  Hence, activities can be broken up or defined at a level that can be conveniently measured for duration, quality and costs.

Interdependency is another factor that can be confused very easily. It cannot be read in isolation, but with the end outcome in mind. Each of the activities have to depend on one or more activities that contribute to the desired outcome.

  • Resources consumption

Resources are anything that helps carry out an activity. These could be employees, equipment, facilities, vendors, logistics, etc. There is no one best way that these resources can be utilized. What resources can or should be used will depend on the nature of the activity and the goal of the process. In some cases it may make sense to use resources external to the business (outsource) and in others, to create a central pool of resources that can be shared by different activities or even processes.

 

Eventually, a process is not just a diagram, but an enabler and an opportunity to improve the efficiency of a business. Understood well and defined sensibly, processes go a long way in making life easier for businesses.

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