Death to Process

And a curse on the six sigma black belts

Process is designed to let us be stupid.

Though don’t take my harsh words the wrong way, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it’s still a reality. Process has a positive side. It affords us consistency, reliability, simplicity, repeatability, and repeatability. It allows us to take complex tasks and break them down into much simpler parts to be executed by specialists or even automated by machines. At an extreme, process takes the world we live in and quantizes it into easy to manage, binary decisions and actions: do or don’t do. Ultimately, what it really affords us is efficiency. By optimizing each part of a process — though specialization, experience, and blind repetition — we can optimize the whole and create faster, bigger, stronger, better systems.

The other effect of this optimized worldview is that it reduces cognitive load. By boiling a complex sequence down to a series of simple steps, the true efficiency comes in never having to question the world around you, but instead simply becoming a master of your small domain. By allowing our world to exist between the confines of our inflows and outputs, we slowly lose is our ability to think beyond our stations and ourselves. We turn the brilliance and inquisitive nature of the human mind into a simple cog to be plugged into someone’s process. And because we’re lazy, we gladly bury our complications, trusting the giants whose shoulders we stand upon were facing the right direction and pointing us the right way when they set our process. For the most part, they probably were. For the most part, you can feel comfort, standing on those broad shoulders, gazing off into the great beyond to which their ancient, wise fingers point.

“For the most part” — you had to see this one coming.

The dawn of industrialization introduced more processes into our lives in the past 100 years than ever existed prior in the whole of human history. And yes, these processes have brought us massive efficiencies and vaulted our advancements forward exponentially. However, who’s to say that these processes will continue to hold as the best way forward? It’s not that process is a bad thing, it’s simply that it is a fragile thing. What works today has no guarantee of working tomorrow and as the world we live in continues to change at an ever-accelerating pace, this risk should scare us more and more.

Yet with the way we blindly charge forward, we don’t seem to be afraid. And even in lieu of catastrophic failure, what if our processes are holding us back and our complacency and laziness is the only thing getting in the way of even greater breakthroughs and innovations? How often do we stop and take the time to step back and see the bigger picture; to truly evaluate what we’re doing in a context broader than what’s expected of us and to ask questions that might at first seem foolish? How often do we ask “why?”

One of the things I love about my job is the ability to attack a problem with a certain sense of foolish ignorance. As consultants, we’re expected to be able to take on nearly any problem thrown at us. Given the diversity of what we work on, this necessarily means that we can’t be experts at everything. Yet, it is in this blissful ignorance that I often find comes our greatest strengths: naïve curiosity and the ability to make non-intuitive connections between diverse problems.

We do this not by strictly following process, but in fact by intentionally breaking it.

Because it is in the breaking of process that we force ourselves to think. We remove the guardrails that act as quick decision-making tools and question the underlying assumptions surrounding the task at hand. And, if there is a serious problem with the task at hand, this is precisely the type of thinking that we need — curious not complacent, skeptical not safe, and exploratory not efficient. We break process not to simply find holes in it and patch or improve them, but to rethink it entirely to constantly and consistently find entirely newer and better ways of doing things.

Take our Health practice as an example. Years ago, when we first started formalizing, we were confronted with an industry that largely served the financial needs of payers, the functional needs of doctors, and the tolerability of patients. But with a movement towards patient empowerment shifting the ground out from under the foundation of the industry, we questioned traditional healthcare models and built an entire practice on the understanding of a patient-first approach. We asked “why” such a heavy emphasis was placed on the system players while so little was given to the end-consumer and in an industry where decision-making authority is slowly shifting hands, this is exactly the question to be asking. Yet far from resting on our laurels or growing complacent, with each new project and each new problem, we re-evaluate the industry and patient experience to understand the hierarchy of needs we must serve and to add to our ever-evolving perspective on healthcare.

Though this role is exhausting, the potential pitfalls of not questioning ourselves are the business equivalent of setting cruise control on your car, letting go the steering wheel and letting our imperfectly designed systems steer us into the unknown. Granted this metaphor was a lot more compelling before self-driving cars became commonplace, but we can still understand the punch line: you may drift along safely for a while, but eventually an inevitable swerve in the road will send you careening off a cliff.

So I say death to process. To hell with the black belts. Leave the process to those who wish to play with cookie cutters. I, for one, would much rather play the role of the foolish skeptic. And though it takes every ounce of my being to fight my inner engineer and businessman each time I play the fool, I’ll gladly spend the energy because I’d rather be exhausted from swimming upstream than continue blindly down a path of self-fulfilling validity… even if I am wrong. At the end of the day, I’d rather be an exhausted fool than a cog.

Shane Saunderson is the VP of IC/things at Idea Couture.