Practice excellence – Can process and practice co-exist

June 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Organizational Excellence, Out of my mind, Practice Excellence, Systems Thinking | 1 Comment

In the context of human organizations, especially technical organizations, we hear a lot about processes and their importance. In other social organizations a similar concept is used but with terms like conventions & traditions. By whatever name, it essentially means what the teams (in a generic sense as a group of individuals with a common mission) favor and expect its members to follow. These may be decided by the teams themselves or prescribed for them from outside. Defining and following certain preferred ways of working by the team greatly improves its efficiency and reliability. Taken too far, especially when the situations for which they were suitable no longer exist, it starts to exhibit the harmful aspects.

Practice is a younger sibling of process, which is what individual team members do to accomplish their tasks or take decisions. Though practices are equally, if not more, important than processes due to their impact on the outcome; they rarely get the attention they deserve. This probably happens because practices are considered part of the processes and given the same treatment, whereas they need a very different approach. Processes can be, and where possible should be, automated to ensure repeatability. Practice on the other hand is a human activity and to be effective needs to be quickly adjusted to the demands of the situation. Practices should allow and support discretion whereas processes can go haywire with too much freedom to change them as and when one feels.

I feel the solution lies in the principal of the “separation of concerns”. After all, a process is a network of practices and can be treated as black boxes by the concerned process. Processes should focus on defining & managing the sequence communication & dependencies amongst the practices, and not worry about what goes on inside them as long as the output is as expected. How the practice is executed is the concern of the member executing the practice and not of the processes. The team can certainly help & guide the individuals in terms of useful patterns and guidelines for using them; however it need not impose & monitor on the individual the standard way of execution.

We see plenty of examples of the above in real life, whether in the technical teams (those producing goods & services) or social teams like the family or the community. Quite often a team restricts in the name of discipline, an individual’s choice to act based on his judgment; sometimes with disastrous results. There are also enough examples of liaise faire attitude by the team members which mess up the smooth functioning of the team, affecting its performance and sometimes even threatening its very existence. This is unnecessary. All we need is a more balanced approach where neither the process nor the practice tries to dominate the other bur rather co-exists focusing on its own scope, while at the same time helping and supporting the other. Though this is quite simple, it is easier said than done; Old habits (and perceptions) die hard.

There is a fascinating book “How NASA builds teams” by Charles Pellerin, who worked as the director of astrophysics at NASA. Based on his close association with the failed Hubble telescope mission and the subsequent successful repair in space, he developed a system to improve communications, performance and morale among hundreds of NASA teams. He says from his experience that 80 to 95 % of the failures by technical teams are due to neglecting the social context. He suggests that rather than trying to influence the individual human behavior, it helps if the teams manage the social context in which individual members operate. He gives plenty of examples which highlight need for the teams to effectively manage the environment or context in which the team members operate rather than monitor & control their behavior.

To summarize, a small change in attitude to let processes & practices co-exist, with mutual respect, can have a profound impact on human teams. But it is a huge task to put it in practice and let it become the culture of the organization.


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  1. Thanks for this post. Helped me think differently on a few typical process related problems.

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