The APQC Blog

Why Taking Process Improvement Shortcuts Gets You Lost

“I'm supposed to be the guy that shows you how to most efficiently get from Point A to Point B. But put me behind the wheel of a car and I tend to take the scenic route.”I have a secret:I’ve got the worst sense of direction of anyone I've ever known.

I use to hide away this personal failing because I feared it would undermine my professional standing. As a process consultant, I'm supposed to be the guy that shows you how to most efficiently get from Point A to Point B. But put me behind the wheel of a car and I tend to take the scenic route.

However, I’ve recently begun to embrace this personal weakness because I think it gives me a unique perspective on how organizations so often find themselves lost on their process journey.

I have a smart phone. And there’s a little lady in my phone that knows where everything is; when prompted, she’ll give me turn-by-turn directions. But I still get lost. All the time.

Why? It’s the same three reasons why organizations make wrong turns despite their own roadmap:

1. We think we're smarter than we are.

“Why is my phone telling me to make 20 turns? I’m on Peachtree. My destination is on Peachtree. I’ll just go straight until I run into it.” Fast forward 10 minutes: “D’oh! I’m on Peachtree Road and I needed to be on Peachtree Street. Rerouting...”

Intuitively, you know how to fix a broken process. The steps, as discussed earlier in this blog series, aren't rocket science. You have a plan -- a “GPS” directing you through your process journey. Yet, organizations often fail to listen to that voice because they think they know better.

I was working with a client that was mapping a process for the first time. As they began to think through the flow of the process, obvious problems began to jump off the white board. “No wonder it always slows down at that step, it’s all being funneled to Jim’s desk.”  Or, “If we implemented a simple checklist at this gate decision, I bet we could significantly reduce rework.”

Some of the problems were so clear that the process team skipped to the solution. Picking low-hanging fruit is fine -- as long as you don’t stop there. Otherwise, you may only fix part of the problem or inadvertently break two other downstream processes in your haste to fix one upstream challenge.

In the end, the team made marginal improvements to the process, but failed to make the transformational changes they sought. They outsmarted themselves.

2. We think we know a short cut

“Why is it taking an hour to get across town?”

“Dad took one of his long-cuts again...”

My time on Earth has taught me three things:

  1. the underneath of kids’ beds have a magnetic pull unequaled elsewhere in the natural world;

  2. kids will often lose only one shoe, no one knows why; and

  3. process management professionals are among the worst at following a process.

Let me share a story to illustrate that last point (all parents already know the first two bullets are indisputably true): To pass an ISO 9001 certification audit, organizations have to show that they have a process owner for each process. To check that box, technically all you have to do is write a name down next to each process. And I’ve observed my share of process teams opening up staff directories to arbitrarily assign owners to any “unowned” processes to meet that requirement.

I’ll grant you, in the short term, picking names out of a hat is faster than wading into internal power struggles to identify and recruit the person with the right skill set, time availability, commitment, and passion. But, in the long run, failing to find the right owners will cost you more time.

Unilaterally selecting the name of a process owner means you haven’t done your homework. Not everyone is a natural leader, able to integrate a cross-functional team, and communicate changes effectively. Not every process owner intuitively knows what a process owner’s roles and responsibilities are. Not everyone wants the job.

Assigning the wrong person can set the process back, and undermine your credibility with the business. Don’t shortcut your governance process.

3. We turn off the GPS as we approach our destination.

“Didn’t the phone say Joey’s house was one mile on our left?”

“And your point is?”

“Well, that was three miles ago.”

I live in constant fear that my phone battery will die, requiring me to forage for food as I navigate home using only the stars. So, whenever I’m “close enough” to my destination I tend to turn off my GPS. And, of course, that’s when I overshoot the destination – sometimes by a lot.

Organizations make the same mistakes as they stumble through the finish line. Case in point: A few weeks after a check processing company overhauled its IT system they started getting calls from their customers that their checks were late.

The company retraced its process steps. First, it went line by line through the coding in the new IT system to identify the problem. But the IT system was fine. They checked to make sure: the printers actually printed the checks, the envelopes were printed and formatted correctly, the postage meter printed the right postage, and the courier had picked up the checks. Those were the totality of the steps of the process. And everything had been executed according to plan.

The problem is that the scope of the process should have been a bit longer. It took several more days to learn that the currier had been stopped by police on the way to the post office, arrested and the car impounded – along with the checks.

Even the best designed and executed processes can breakdown if you scope it too narrowly.

Trust me. I know.

For additional information on this topic check out:



If you have any questions or comments about your processes you’d rather not post publicly, please don’t hesitate to reach out to our Process Advisory team directly.

Jess Scheer can be reached on LinkedIn or  by

Email: jscheer@apqc.org

Phone: 1+ 713-685-7215

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