Can Process Improve Communication?

It is with some frequency that I am presented with inaccurate process documentation. The degree of accuracy varies but what’s interesting is that the degree of accuracy varies depending on who you ask. One version of a process, involving multiple actors, can range from a perfect representation of reality (impossible!) to unrecognizable (probably closer to the truth) within a single team!

Keith Swenson, referencing Cognitive Nueroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, describes how process descriptions can be full of inaccuracies because of the mind’s need for coherence. We give more weight to a coherent story than an accurate one. As a result, when interviewing process participants, they are as likely to fill in the gaps of their knowledge of the process with something that makes sense than what actually happens.

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman describes the human mind as two systems he calls System 1 and System 2. System 1 is your intuitive mind, it is the part of the mind that reacts instantly to sudden events, it is in control when we are completing simple tasks, it recognizes faces, sounds and smells. Often our intuitive minds fly solo, allowing us to complete tasks on autopilot without much thought or concentration.

System 2 is your rational mind, the part that calculates mathematical problems, the part that works through complex puzzles and formulates thoughtful responses to problems and is used in situations where high levels of concentration are required.

Our intuitive mind makes assumptions based on past experience, norms and memories often without consulting our rational mind. According to Kahneman our rational mind is lazy and allows the intuitive side to create these assumptions without question. When an individual describes a process, of which they have incomplete knowledge, the intuitive mind fills in the gaps as it would expect to do those steps in the process it does not know. This feels natural to us, when our rational mind is at rest, the coherence of the described process feels right and the rational mind is not called in to check the validity.

This is why I prefer running collaborative workshops involving multiple process actors rather than individual interviews. Watching them attempt to fill in the gaps for each other can be quite colorful. Process workshops force disagreements and a search for consensus and bring our rational minds into play. It forces us to both mentally and verbally question what we see and hear. While this allows, to some extent, the discovery of the truth it has another powerful effect, it creates a level of mutual understanding between players that improves communication. The act of talking through and visualizing a process can often, in my experience, actually improve the effectiveness of that process without any attempt to change it. Process improvement suggestions are common in these sessions but they are a by-product of improved communication.

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5 thoughts on “Can Process Improve Communication?

  1. Nice extension on the idea. It makes sense to have people in a group discuss. Then at least they have to come up with a common narrative, which would seem, all things equal, to be a better narrative that any one of them could come up with. Or, are we being too optimistic. Do you ever worry about the effect that some people tend to dominate groups, especially if there are mixed ranks present. You still have the problem that one person might push the group to accept their personal narrative. However, it is hard to see that this would ever be worse than the narrative you would get from that person alone. Interesting post!

    • Indeed, there are often issues with dominance or conflict in workshops and it takes a good facilitator and a lot of practice and experience to manage this well. But even the best facilitator will be challenged by cultural differences, cultural differences between organizations and national/ethnic identities.

      But this is what makes our work so interesting and workshops are but one tool we have available to us. They are not always the best tool but one that I tend to reach for more often than not.

  2. Pingback: The Power of Process Visualization | eSOPs Fables

  3. Craig, good post. Thinking Fast and Slow is a great book. Kahneman is after all the inventor of behavioral economics. I like to look at it from a more functional neurology aspect and did so in this post: http://isismjpucher.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/acm-and-bpm-a-battle-of-hemispheres/

    While your approach of process workshops that involves all relevant people is certainly better than some analyst hacking out processes in the ivory tower, I still prefer to give the actual performers the ability to create the process they need on the fly COLLABORATIVELY. That basically means that rather than having disagreements in the room, processes are performed AS-IS and then the process owner or an analyst can review and suggest changes or even enforce changes by changing people roles, authority or adding constraints to the process/case definition.

    This way there can be no gap between the narrative and what really happens. The narrative describes what really happens AND it is used to create narrative guidance and controls for future executions.

    • Hi Max, I think the real power of the workshop lies in the heightened level of communication. I’m not sure exactly how you would measure this but I think it’s along the lines of what Atul Gawande discovered with the use of Checklists in the Airline industry and the operating theater (see Amazon for The Checklist Manifesto).

      This would work best at, although not confined to, a level above the actual execution of work. I think this is what you refer to as the business architecture. I believe that most knowledge workers should have the freedom to, as you say, create the process as they perform it. This is why we hire educated and experienced staff is it not?

      But this is not always the case, there are jobs, carried out manually, that are highly repetitive with little in the way of exceptions. Take reclaiming expenses as an example, there are a number of things that must be done and done in a particular order. While there is a level of automation here there are still numerous manual steps that need to take place within the bounds of company policy and financial regulations.

      As a user of this process I have little idea as to what controls need to be in place or what risks they mitigate. But I am an expert in the usability of the process (as I have to go through the pain of doing it every week!) and therefore have a stake. Alas this is a process example normally designed by those that rarely leave their desks and even less often consider us as stakeholders but that’s another issue!

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