Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A plague of process 

American society has made process as important as outcome, and it is sucking the energy out of us. It is increasingly true that it is not what you did that matters, but how you did it. It is making us slow and cautious, and that will be fatal to us because the competitive advantage of Americans is in being fast and risky.

There are countless examples in the business world, from Sarbanes-Oxley to ISO-everything to endless compliance training lest one quotes Jeremiah Wright or an episode of Seinfeld in front of an easily offended employee. Process is now so sacrosanct that we are not actually allowed to question its importance; if an executive were to speak out against the status of process, he would be deemed to have undermined the "tone at the top," which is taken to be a critical element of -- you guessed it -- a robust process.

Suffice it to say that I am not questioning the importance of process. But if I were I might notice that one big problem with the cult of procedure is that it gives officious people a lot of power. I respectfully submit into evidence two cases from the evening linkage.

First, a Dartmouth professor was so offended by her students' criticism of her that she is suing them under federal civil rights laws. Presumably she did not choose the obvious cause of action -- libel -- because truth is a defense. Either way, she took refuge in a lawsuit rather than looking at herself in a mirror and asking whether she ought not just become a better teacher.

Second, a fan goes to a baseball game, buys his 7 year-old "lemonade," and is obviously startled when a security officer informs him that "Mike's Hard Lemonade" has alcohol in it. The obvious solution is to arrest the man and consign his child to foster care because, gee, an understanding reprimand would not be part of the prescribed process.

Do we really believe that these stories and thousands like them, which reverberate and impress even those of us who have never been treated shabbily by a process, are not changing America for the worse?

CWCID: Glenn Reynolds.


By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Apr 29, 10:44:00 PM:

I am a career federal employee, since 1983, and over the years I have seen everything reduced to process and endlessly analyzed for adherence to impossible standards and unrealistic timetables. This reduction of government and society, and the simplest interactions of citizens, to process, to abstractions and legal minutiae is absolutely crippling. If the American Republic falls like the Roman Republic it will not be because a Caesar arose to seize power but because the lassitude and dysfunction, the inability to get the most basic tasks accomplished, left a vacuum of power, and politics like nature abhors a vacuum.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Tue Apr 29, 10:53:00 PM:

Maybe this ebbs and flows in our society. I hope so. I remember that one of Reagan's main objectives was to diminish the intrusiveness of government in business and people's personal affairs.

Process in my mind is the sacred text of bureaucracies. TH I think I read your father was a scholar of European history? Didn't the Romans become more bureaucratic as they became more comfortable and secure?

I spent some of my college days in Italy and at that time (mid 70's) I and many of my classmates were quite amused by the Italian bravura of bureaucracy. Almost any endeavor involved a process that came to a crescendo of thumping ink pad stamps on paper---even something as simple as changing dollars for lira. Of course the poignant aspect of it all was that this seemingly trivial action and display was a relatively rewarding and important activity which meant a lot to the stamper.

Now of course, there is a tide flowing the other way. Democrats in Congress seem to place more faith in the wisdom of their governmental structures and creations than the common sense and good will of the citizens they represent.

If there is a tyranny of process, then it exists, in my opinion at local government levels every bit as much as at national level. My experience with local government politicians and bureaucrats is not encouraging. Maybe it is just where I live, but they seem so small minded. This is also where the Republican party is most lame and clueless.  

By Blogger randian, at Wed Apr 30, 12:02:00 AM:


By Blogger SR, at Wed Apr 30, 01:04:00 AM:

The practice of medicine is being overwhelmed by process. The current exemplar is "evidence based " medicine. Who could be against that? Well, when one looks at a lot of the evidence, it is really weak. However, since it is the only "evidence" we have, and since medical organizations from insurers to hospitals want to be seen as conforming to the best evidence, we now have the "process" of documenting conformance with "evidence based" edicts. Pay for performance sounds great, but what we are getting is pay for process, and the outcome be damned.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 01:54:00 AM:

the thank you notes!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 01:56:00 AM:

the thank you notes!  

By Blogger Andrew Hofer, at Wed Apr 30, 06:15:00 AM:

In addition to being a bureaucratic hazard, process is also now seen as personal protection from lawsuits, arrest or municipal job actions. The latter, I believe, explains the 'hard lemonade' case.

Take anti-money laundering laws, with which I am very familiar. Imagine that you are unwittingly a part of a dirty funds transfer. The *only* defense against virtually unlimited monetary and criminal penalties is to demonstrate that your institution has a "robust" process in place to catch such things.

Which leads institutions to file lots of useless or false "suspicious activity reports", the document that triggered Spitzer's demise!  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Apr 30, 06:32:00 AM:

The first two comments, but anonymous, are right on. Local governments are rarely anything other than hideous, at least on the east coast.

Mindles gives a good example of process as protection, and there are many others. But that construct comes at a cost. Basically disingenuous accusations are more common in the work place now that the employer must maintain a "process" to investigate each and every accusation. We do not have very many claims of harassment in our company, but a staggering majority of those we do have are either of suspect motive or insane. Either way, process allows people of dubious character to pull bureaucratic levers and make things happen. That must be a great feeling of power.  

By Blogger Cato Renasci, at Wed Apr 30, 07:27:00 AM:

I've been making this point -- without much headway -- for some 30 years. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think it is largely the result of changing the sensibilities of the work place as a result of the influx of large numbers of professional and managerial women -- their general risk aversion compared with men (which may be partly cultural and party biological) leads them to desire avoiding conflict and building consensus. When you do that, innovation goes out the window.

It is interesting to note that the areas of America's greatest increases in productivity and the creation of wealth in the past 30 years -- high technology and high finance -- are still pretty much exclusively male, at least at the level where the technology is developed and the hard mathematics that underly the financial revolution are done.  

By Blogger Matthew Hooper, at Wed Apr 30, 07:30:00 AM:

If you replace "process" and "outcome" with "means" and "ends" in this argument, you can start to see the danger of this line of thinking.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 07:36:00 AM:

I think you can expand on this a little further. Process is being substituted for judgement. Examples: Zero-tolerance policies in schools. Child brings an OTC allergy pill to school and is suspended. Child is struck by a bully and both children are suspended (the principal is not allowed to investigate who started what or what the history of each child was).

It seems to me that this is part of the war on individualism, which is what Ted Kennedy wanted several years ago. The whole point of this is that individuals are not important (or smart), it is groups (committess, bureacracies, offended groups) that make smart decisions (wisdom of crowds) and put in place a process to keep the individual from having to make a decision, because the indivdual cannot be trusted.

And when it comes to the wisdom of crowds, I only have one word: tulips.  

By Blogger gossypol, at Wed Apr 30, 07:48:00 AM:

"Barbarians to Bureaucrats" by Lawrence M. Miller compares "corporate life cycles" to the rise and fall of civilizations. The "bureaucratic age" in his book is identified the start of a descent into aristocratic corruption. This sets the stage for takeover by more logical and goal-oriented "barbarians" who sweep away the corruption and bureaucratic clutter, usually in a very painful manner.

This book is now somewhat dated, with some of the corporations cited as examples of effectiveness now having problems. Though written for the corporate world, it was most helpful to me in understanding the maddeningly stupid and dangerous actions of employees of a government institution. And today, the processes required by government intrude more into the corporate world, and into private lives, every day.  

By Blogger Earth Girl, at Wed Apr 30, 07:49:00 AM:

As a mid-level executive in charge of a marketing department for a Fortune 500 company, I fought and tried to protect my very creative employees from the upper echelon process mongers. They wanted us to document the creative process since it was "intellectual property" and they wanted to be able to recreate our work. Through elaborate flowcharts, I gave them the process: gather information, design, produce. The first and last step were easy to document but the middle step is the magic. By the way, it was a MAN who was behind this effort. A clueless man, I might add.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 07:53:00 AM:

Industry (at least my field) is awash in process, pre-dating the SOX by just a few years. I think this is an error rooted in corrupt philosophy: lumping us into a collective brain (that must think in concert with the other constituents) and a primacy of conscience (be damned reality, it will conform to this process). In a word, process overload is just one of the trillions of bad facets to an increasingly irrational culture.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 07:55:00 AM:

It is not just American governmental bodies or functions regulated by the government that are infected with "process obsession". You could substitute "XYZ, Inc." for "American Society" and most employees of XYZ, Inc. would agree. In the Fortune 50 company I work for executives have stated asking why it takes so long to make decisions and get things done. Every company overhead department, such as H.R., legal, building services, & EHS, is allowed to pile on "mandantory" meetings and training. Our team of 15 now has to use an engineer as a part time training coordinator to make sure that everyone keeps up with required training.  

By Blogger Tom Cuddihy, at Wed Apr 30, 08:04:00 AM:

As a military working right now with only govvie civilians and contractors, let me give a hearty Amen. The contracting regulations, in particuler, are so overwhelming and far reaching that vast, multi-million dollar impacting decisions are largely made on the basis of what is easiest for the Contracting Officer to justify via the FAR, not on actual best value to the government. As a result we often end up spending much more money for less product, just so that the Contracting office doesn't have to write reams of paperwork justifying a best-value decision.
It's even worse when it comes to contract employees. I can't count how many times I've seen personnel contracts awarded to which organization has the best proposal and legal team, despite the fact that their personnel don't even meet the requirements of the job...BUT the proposal had all the right paragraphs!

It's disheartening when you have to spend so much effort to no good effect.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:08:00 AM:

I agree with most every comment here but I do not think it necessary to insult the intelligence of the person caught up in the process. When not adhering to process will result in loss of employment or a malpractice lawsuit it is not stupid to comply. I am certain many many people mutter under their breath "THIS IS STUPID" while performing their tasks. If results mattered more than results then we wouldn't have Dilbert and his pointy hair boss.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:14:00 AM:

Many projects I work on involve installation of commercial software tools. In the small clients, they find an open PC, point us at it, and within an hour we're doing productive work.

In the very large corporations the tool must be discussed ad nauseum by procurement and IT support groups. The Database Administrators have to look over the definitions to see that they're OK. Of course if there's something they don't like, the answer is: "Well, if you want the tool to work you have to use it." Then it has to be tested in a quarantined environment. The god of Servers must be petitioned for a machine and disk space.

In larger companies, we're talking three to six months to accomplish what the small one does in a day. The actual work, vs. talking about the work, is still one or two hours. If the I/T environment is outsourced, double those projections as the outsourcer has to send it's projection of how long it will take to produce and estimate as to how much providing access to a server is going to cost.

All the while the project managers for us and the client are strading status reports, meeting minutes, communications plans, forecasts, planned vs. actual expenses. Perhaps a thousand hours and $200,000 in costs.

The kicker is that the person actually getting the work done usually has to circumvent several rules anyway.

Everytime something goes wrong we address it by adding more steps to the process. Evenutally, doing ANYTHING, takes months.

Devotion to "process" is killing our productivity. You can't legislate competence. Instead we drown competence in sea of red tape.  

By Blogger gossypol, at Wed Apr 30, 08:15:00 AM:

Tigerhawk, there are other reasons that a civil rights lawsuit might be preferred over a libel lawsuit by the Dartmouth professor. First, the government may do the investigation into her case, saving her money on attorney fees. (If the local civil rights office sees an opening to increase the scope of their authority, they could get nasty. Otherwise, their investigation could be perfunctory.)

Second, if Dartmouth were to take any type of employment action against the professor based upon the incompetence claimed by her students, Dartmouth could face charges of retaliation for her filing of a civil rights complaint, regardless of the merits of the complaint.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:46:00 AM:

Typo alert:
Prescribed, not proscribed.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:53:00 AM:

One of the most pernicious consequences of the cult of process is that it devalues process across the board, even when it has actual value.

And it can have value, at least in moderation. My partner and I are starting a business with a couple of guys who have some great ideas and no business experience. We are using what might be called "process" - requiring documentation, mostly - as a way to help us get from concept to product and to measure our results.

I think business process is like any other kind of discipline: it's useful and even necessary but there is a point beyond which it becomes arbitrary, tendentious and cruel. Business process doesn't have to be bullshit process, and good managers know the difference.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:57:00 AM:

A bit about the high-tech world being less process-oriented. When I joined the working world, my employer handed me a book to read. It lamented how long things took, and that everything ended up late, over budget, and less functional than needed. I was reading this in 1994; the book was from 1976.

Around 1998, the idea bubbled up that maybe process wasn't the answer. A whole bunch of "agile methods" were developed, that stressed doing the right things rather than executing the accepted process. People who tried these new methods -- more collections of disciplines than anything else -- had good results. They were working, rather than spending their lives dotting i's and crossing t's.

Fast forward to today. I work at a large company, and the developers and their immediate managers are pushing to use these agile methods. But the politics of the situation are forcing us to wrap them in another heavy process that gets us right back to the same problems we had 32 years ago -- more process than progress. For five years we've said we need automated acceptance testing, but those responsible for testing have yet to select an automated testing tool, but they do have a process for selecting the tool.

Process, IMHO, is the ultimate expression of risk-averse behavior. If you follow the process, your failure is not your fault. If you break the process and succeed, you're as likely to be reprimanded for bypassing the process as praised for getting results. And if you bypass the process and fail...  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Wed Apr 30, 08:58:00 AM:

Anon 8:53 - "Business process doesn't have to be bullshit process, and good managers know the difference."

True, but there are tragically few such people. Just about every time I dig into a process in my own company, it has idiocy embedded in it. I wish that were not true, but it is.

Anon 8:46 - Thanks!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 09:00:00 AM:

Implicit in some comments above is that the "processification" of everything is a neat way to individual, personal reponsibility when something goes wrong.

No matter how badly you mess up, if you can show that you followed "the process" you are immune from consequences.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 09:01:00 AM:

I have to concur. I work in a corporation where I've seen multi-million-dollar software projects completely fail, because of process. All the necessary resources were present, the requirements were straightforward, but process reared its ugly head. Things suddenly became overly complicated--there were too many layers of approval to go through, the process in place didn't address all the exceptions, and everyone ran around not knowing what to do. People who cheat by going around the obstructive process are punished, yet they are the only people who get things done. I suppose this is all just the basis of bureaucracy. It creates a situation where there are too many chiefs, not enough braves, and nothing gets done.  

By Blogger Dan, at Wed Apr 30, 09:09:00 AM:

"If there is a tyranny of process, then it exists, in my opinion at local government levels every bit as much as at national level. My experience with local government politicians and bureaucrats is not encouraging. Maybe it is just where I live, but they seem so small minded."

Hear, hear. My father was tired of paying $30 per month at his lake cabin just to be hooked up to the grid (any electricity used was on top of that). I looked and searched and studied and got a plan ready to put in a wind turbine w/power plant and get him off the grid.

I was stopped cold by the county, who apparently has some rule about wind turbines having to be a minimum of 1000 feet from the lake. Hello!? I thought we were all supposed to be "going green"? I never did get the project off the ground.

I keep hearing how wind and solar will "never" help our power needs. Indeed they won't if the county government won't even let us early-adopters try.  

By Blogger Charlie, at Wed Apr 30, 09:39:00 AM:

The process-oriented have always walked among us (just remember the "tight bomb patterns" lampooned in Catch-22). They tend to be self-marginalizing, caught up in the little eddies of process. The trick is to keep them that way.

As bureaucracies grow, however, they tend to squeeze out the results-oriented. There may be little hope for large sectors of government and mainstream medicine.

Case in point, I recently consulted with a man hired to productize research out of a medical center. In two years he had no innovations to his name, none in the pipeline, but he had made sure all researchers were aware of patent law and was highly regarded!  

By Blogger Mick Kraut, at Wed Apr 30, 09:55:00 AM:

I am the head of recruiting for a government contractor...the process and documentation required not only corporately but by the OFCCP is stunning...

The OFCCP essentially wants you to be able to forensically reconstuct every hiring process down to the search strings used on Monster and the EEO data on every resume you read. Heaven help you if youre audited and you cant show this level of detail...the assumption is that you are discriminating against women and minorities and you have to prove otherwise...the results dont matter an iota, process is king.

I tend to drink...  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 09:55:00 AM:

I believe this is just another part of the problem with having way too many lawyers in America. Lawyers worship process far more than justice. There are over a million lawyers in America - that's about 1 out of every 300 people in the country. They have to justify their existance somehow and infiltrating every aspect of society seems to be their goal.  

By Blogger Dr. Goodheart, at Wed Apr 30, 10:08:00 AM:

Regarding medicine being ruined by 'process':
I disagree with the poster above that the problem is evidence-based medicine per se. Evidence-based medicine actually would allow us to ignore process, and permit doctors, hospitals etc. to use different processes as long as the outcome was optimal.
But that's not what happened.
A few years ago JCAHO (the organization that accredits hospitals) was supposed to be moving to outcomes-based indicators rather than process.
But if you look at their current survey 'process', it focuses not on outcomes, but on documentation, documentation, and procedure.
As a result, nurses now spend more time and energy documenting care than providing care. Nurses' notes used to be extremely valuable for physicians; now they are useless and--to be honest--not even looked at, because they consist of a matrix of check boxes. How good is that for patient care?
I could go on and on, but the bottom line is total agreement with Tigerhawk's argument, as it applies to the field I know best.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 10:08:00 AM:

You want to see process? A new nuclear power plant application takes 42 months to be reviewed and approved in the US - and that's with a design that has already been reviewed and "certified." Six examples of the same design have already been built internationally and running.

In Japan, they can BUILD a plant from first concrete pour to full electrical output in 37 months.

Of course, some people politically DEMAND more process as a economic tactic in their religous war against nuclear power.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 10:14:00 AM:

You're on to something, but I'd conceptualize the problem differently.

U.S. Government was always about process -- checks and balances, separataion of powers, etc. It's part of our government's genius, because government entirely by outcome leads to tyranny. Better to have them consumed with process.

U.S. law is similar. I went to law school, and it's a mind-numbing three-year course in process, in order to enter a profession steeped in process. Process is, ultimately, about 99% of the profession -- specifically how to use it to achieve an outcome.

The media is interested in process because process makes news. Someone has a proceeding, a hearing, introduces legislation, signs a law, etc. and that makes news. When a corporation develops a confidential strategy to produce a revolutionary product, that's not news even though it's a great deal more significant.

What Tigerhawk calls obsession with process, I would call the rise of governmental, legal, and media thinking in society. And if you want to solve the problem, you need to reduce the excessive prominence of these sectors of society.

Personally, I'm a little pessimistic on the subject -- at least when it comes to the MSM "discourse" in society. There is evidence from declining newspaper sales, fragmenting TV audiences, and the rise of niche media outlets that people may be tuning out the "discourse." That makes me think the audience might be a little less enamoured of process than the MSM.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 10:21:00 AM:

In a process dominant environment, various outside interests have an opportunity to extract their pound of flesh. I work in the wind energy field. We can't just go build a project; we have to follow a process. Hiring consultants to complete the NEPA and CEQA environmental reviews, obtaining FAA permits and DOD radar clearances, county construction and use permits, habitat mitigation land requirements by Fish & Game, USCOE permitting for wetlands, and of course public outreach efforts to name a few. We can spend millions of dollars for the process long before we disturb a single clod of dirt. The process, thanks to our and our elected representatives voting behavior, increases the costs and lengthens the timeframe of developing energy projects. If we are in urgent need of energy sources, both traditional and alternative, we need a streamlined process that reflects that urgency. Right now, we have processes in place that provide bureaucratic job security, instead of energy security and economic development.
For the commentor who wanted to put up a wind turbine, you can still build it, it will just cost you. The county will want a pound of flesh for a waiver or to amend its General Plan.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 10:21:00 AM:

There's a world of difference between cya process (legal and government driven, like SOX and EEOC) and "rational" process like ISO, CMMI, evidence-based medicine.

Taken in small doses, rational processes can allow us to make busy work go faster and smoother - I'd argue they are behind the incredible quality improvements of the past few decades as well as much of the gains in corporate efficiency. At the same time, process is not always fun and can be a little deadening.

A great article describing how process kills innovation at microsoft: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/001082.html
Note that there are darn good reasons for almost all the bureaucracy in the msft process, but in the end it kills innovation.


By Blogger ArtH, at Wed Apr 30, 10:30:00 AM:

Blessed by mainly being able to make a living without the damning experience of process (because of the smallness of the businesses), I nevertheless experienced process every time I went to a public school board meeting or worse, a school board community workshop, where the worship of process is permanently enshrined. I wasn't frustrated however because it gave me great pleasure to announce to the group that the consensus results they were so happy with were so bland, so incredibly worthless, that I was absolutely fascinated by the ability of so many people to be so happy with having accomplished so little. Suckers for everyone, everyone is special and there are no losers--I always said the only thing that was still relevant in the elementary school my son attended was basketball: on the court the best were successful, the worst were ignored, and in the end a score publicly indicated what happened, and who won and who lost. Naturally, the processors were in favor of not keeping score, but we realists were able to avoid that erosion of the game.  

By Blogger ArtH, at Wed Apr 30, 10:35:00 AM:

A comment about something Anonymous said about Italians, and that is....Exactly when did the Romans become Italians?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 10:38:00 AM:

Can't do it, Won't work, Mustn't try.

Luddites all, trying to stop someone else from having something (money, praise, promotion, satisfaction) they don't have and can't earn on their own.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 11:21:00 AM:

Even 5 years ago, I never would have said this, but I am saying it now.

America has jumped the shark.

It is no longer the country that is the shining city on the hill. Leftism has diminished too many people into non-thinkers. Americans are too pampered and too entitlement-ridden to compete. They deserve to be surpassed.

It is over..  

By Blogger Andrewdb, at Wed Apr 30, 11:40:00 AM:

Amen, Brother!

I do a lot with SOX - I think this is the rise of the lawyers and judges. We are NOT substituting our judgment for that of people who actually do things, we are merely checking (after the fact) to shoot the wounded, er, I mean "see if you followed the correct process" This allows judges and the SEC to pretend they are not activist but merely making sure your own internally designed process is followed.

And as to how local agencies run amok - my father says he is a Republican (he is really a libertarian) because of the excesses of the local rationing board during WWII - the defense worker (a "critical job") who lived at the end of the block was going to tell you how much extra butter you could have - totally arbitrary.

As we have seen recently with Federal earmarks, when government has great power, there will be great corruption among those who seek rents.  

By Blogger halojones-fan, at Wed Apr 30, 11:48:00 AM:

"By Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:53:00 AM Process, IMHO, is the ultimate expression of risk-averse behavior."

Exactly. People are not instituting process dominance because they think that it's going to make things better. They're doing it because they believe that a supposedly-objective, impartial PROCESS is completely free of risk. They think it's like a computer program; inputs, process, outputs, all the same way every single time. They believe that if you use a process, then failure is impossible.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 11:55:00 AM:

My pet peeve of process is Robert's Rules of Order, which renders meetings everywhere boring and prone to lemming-like behavior on voice votes. As with the US Constitution, nobody seems to know what Robert's Rules actually say, either.


By Blogger ExRat, at Wed Apr 30, 12:08:00 PM:

Some activities, such as combat, don't lend themselves very well to process. Training for combat does, but combat itself does not. Every now and then someone comes along and blows off process, and achieves extraordinary results despite bureaucratic opposition. One such is John Boyd, profiled by Bill Whittle on his blog. It takes guts and absolute self-confidence to do it, but most importantly it takes being right. Every. Single. Time.  

By Blogger gs, at Wed Apr 30, 12:14:00 PM:

"Where process is our most important product."

Process is essential. Try putting a payload into orbit or running a fleet of airplanes without process.

However, our society is endangered by a metastasis of process. I don't fully understand the dynamic and I don't know how it might stop short of a crash.

Clearly, risk avoidance is a big part of what's going on, and concern about litigation (and possible criminalization of mistakes) is a big part of risk avoidance.

The custodian of a process has a semipermanent claim on a revenue stream from the organization: job security.

Perhaps designing a process has become viewed as a "higher", more prestigious activity than designing a product.

The importance of process can be distorted into a pretext for concentrating rewards to those who sign off on processes. This creates perverse incentives at all levels of an organization.
The consequences of inadequate process can be obviously catastrophic, e.g. the Challenger explosion. The consequences of too much process can be equally bad, but the onset is gradual and cumulative.  

By Blogger Andrew Hofer, at Wed Apr 30, 12:41:00 PM:

gs makes a good point - process is a volatility-dampening strategy. Lack of process produces spectacular success AND dramatic failure.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 01:22:00 PM:

The metastasis of process is captured by the word "compliance", in which fear of doing something (or appearing to do something) that does not conform to some externally-imposed process has generated yet another set of internal processes for institutional self-protection. As with process, there are people who embrace the compliance mentality with the enthusiasm of block captains in Fidel's Cuba.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 02:35:00 PM:

The FLDS case in Texas shows how empowered bureaucrats using an inflexible process can take things too far and preempt constitutional freedoms. I'm a life-long Federal bureaucrat and have observed how overlapping/redundant processes wastes our tax dollars and make even simple tasks excessively difficult. People often talk about reducing the size of government. What we really need is to simplify and reduce the number of government processes that make almost everything more difficult and expensive.  

By Blogger Escort81, at Wed Apr 30, 03:28:00 PM:

Mindles -

Does that mean we can "short the Vega" in the options of very bureaucratic large publicly held companies?

What I see here is a general feeling that as a society matures, its risk profile changes. This is roughly equivalent to what you are taught in economics class -- that the marginal utility of a bit more wealth for an already relatively wealthy individual is less than the marginal utility for the same dollar increase in wealth for a person of modest means. A $1,000 windfall to TH pays for his daughter's equine costs for some short period of time, a $1,000 to someone still in college means he gets to go home for break and see his parents and listen to his new iPod on the airplane ride.  

By Blogger halojones-fan, at Wed Apr 30, 04:25:00 PM:

"The consequences of inadequate process can be obviously catastrophic, e.g. the Challenger explosion. "

Actually, no. The Challenger explosion wasn't a failed process--it was a circumvented process. Had they been following procedure they wouldn't have launched, and the Challenger wouldn't have exploded.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 04:40:00 PM:

The Lockheed Skunk Works is a shining example of where "lack of process" can get you. The P-80 Shooting Star went from an idea to flying prototype in 143 days. The U-2 went from contract to overflights in less than a year. Making a Mach 3 aircraft out of titanium was a more of a challenge--it took three years to get the A-12 blowing those triple sonic booms.
And so it goes.  

By Blogger Swen, at Wed Apr 30, 06:26:00 PM:

I'd suggest that process would be a good deal less important if all the interested parties could agree on what constituted the optimum outcome.

I've worked for some 30 years now doing NEPA compliance, mostly for energy development. The problem there is that the optimum outcome for me and my energy company client is to acquire the necessary permits as quickly and cheaply as possible, with as few restrictions as possible.

The optimum outcome for the land owner or tennant is that our development not interfer with their use and enjoyment of the land. If the land owner also holds the mineral rights he stands to make a good deal of money and is probably pro-development. If the government holds the mineral rights then all the surface owner stands to get out of the deal is headaches so he'll probably be anti-development.

The optimal outcome for the various environmental advocacy groups is for the development not happen at all. Failing that, to cause as much delay and expense and pain as possible.

The optimal outcome for the various state and federal permitting agencies is not to have any lawyers or powerful politicians darkening their doorways, or any other problems that threaten their job security or cause them any unpaid overtime. Whether the development ever happens is entirely secondary. Mindles is right, risk avoidance is a major consideration here, especially for the senior management in the bureaucracy who are probably appointed and can be fired at a whim by their political bosses.

Finally, we've got the general public who'd like to be able to breath, drink the water, and afford to drive to work. Just no pleasing some people!

In these situations the question isn't whether there will be law suits but rather how many, when, filed by whom on what pretense.

When every single interest has a different view of the optimal outcome, the process becomes a sacred map. Step off the prescribed route and the developer can be forced to go back to page 1 and start over, or go home. However, so long as the process is followed religiously there's little the development's opponents can do to stop them. They've complied.

Yes, the process is expensive and often very time-consuming (not to mention infuriating). It's far from optimal if your desired outcome is simply cheap and plentiful energy. On the other hand, it also allows the concerns of all parties to be heard and it's important to recognize that all interested parties do, at least occasionally, have legitimate concerns.

Now consider the alternative: Someone decides they want to get innovative. Or just change their mind half-way though the process. They might have the best idea in the world, so far as achieving the optimum outcome of some of the parties, but they're certainly going to cause apoplexy among the opposing parties.

Is this the optimum situation? Absolutely not, but any solution probably begins with hanging all the lawyers.  

By Blogger Swen, at Wed Apr 30, 06:51:00 PM:

Mindles: "Lack of process produces spectacular success AND dramatic failure."

Absolutely. And that's where it's important to remember the watchwords of the bureaucrat:

One "Oh shit" cancels a lifetime of "attaboys".  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 07:39:00 PM:

'Process' was one of the reasons I quit my real job and am now self-employed. I don't know where the obsession with process will end, but it is not going to get better. Judging by the number of comments, this post struck a nerve.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:19:00 PM:

"One 'Oh shit!' cancels a lifetime of 'Attaboys'."


In any large, bureaucratic organization, stability is valued, and there is a selection effect as noted above by which risk takers are weeded out. The risk takers eventually get fired, jailed, whatever as the case may be.

That said, there is a cyclical tendency too, America went through a phase much like this in the early part of the 20th century, and before that in the 1840s and 1850s. In each case, a nasty reality eventually swept the process-oriented thinking aside, the Civil War in 1861 and the Depression and World War II in the 30s and 40s.

Reality always punches through eventually...and it always hurts.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Apr 30, 08:27:00 PM:

That was a dang good post, and true, too.

If I could roll it, I'd smoke it.  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu May 01, 04:24:00 AM:

"In each case, a nasty reality eventually swept the process-oriented thinking aside, [for example during] the Civil War in 1861..."

Alas, it was that same US Civil War that birthed today's massive Federal military procurement process. Some folks here may remember the episode "Age of Shoddy" in Ken Burns' documentary movie The Civil War. As a result of such shenanigans, the desire to make sure military contractors never again (a) supply substandard goods to the military, or (b) make large profits, was born.  

By Blogger MEANA55, at Fri May 02, 11:40:00 AM:

Tigerhawk, thank you! The frustration-inspired points in your "plague of process" post have been bouncing around in my head for years. Your post and the many fine responses by your commenters will help to keep me from going off the deep end. Until reading this, I have been fantasizing about going off-grid.

My small contribution to the discussion is that overbearing process is the revenge of General Kurt Von Hammerstein-Equord's "stupid and industrious" types. I have known many people who believe that perspiration can substitute for inspiration, and they are typically the strongest proponents of constraining reality with process.

Anyone not born clever can either recognize and admire cleverness and strive (often successfully) to become smart and able in some endeavor, or he can "sour grapes" cleverness and impose process to handicap any smart people around him.

My first clue about these people is how they react to my answer to, "How did you know to do that?" My memory is such that I can nearly always cite where I gained the experience needed to produce a solution. If the reaction to my answer tends toward codification of a rule without any spark of recognizing the importance of experience and the application thereof, then I am dealing with a process type.

How many people like this do you know?

I suspect that the rationalization behind having process "jump the shark" from a force for good to a soul-deadening burden is that some people's limitations prevent them from distinguishing cleverness from magic, that depending on magic is an unacceptable risk, and that a prescriptive process that doesn't depend on the inequitably distributed human gift of problem solving eliminates this risk.

Just as paint-by-numbers makes Every Man a Rembrandt, process holds the false promise of equating working harder to working smarter.  

By Blogger Noumenon, at Sat May 03, 01:32:00 AM:

I can understand this but it doesn't keep me from thinking that the kind of "people who do things" cause more problems than they're worth, wars and pollution and stuff.

Hey, the more government controls society, the more we should hope it's crippled by process rather than trying to do things!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun May 04, 01:05:00 AM:

Anyone not born clever can either recognize and admire cleverness and strive (often successfully) to become smart and able in some endeavor, or he can "sour grapes" cleverness and impose process to handicap any smart people around him. --MEANA55

To be fair, there is another side to it. While the above certainly does happen, it's also sometimes true that people who think they're clever really do just think they're clever.

If you're a long-term manager in an ongoing organization, and you've been around for years, and somebody comes up with a bright clever idea, it's possible that this idea is actually an old one that you've heard several times before, and each time it's been tried the result was an 'oh shit!"

This is especially common with young, smart, but highly inexperienced people. Just as clever ideas should not be rejected just because they violate process, an established way of doing things shouldn't be disregarded without some thought as to whether the procedures might have some valid reason behind them.

Just as experience is not a substitute for intelligence, neither is either intelligence or education a substitute for experience.

I've seen it happen both ways.  

By Blogger MEANA55, at Sun May 04, 11:53:00 PM:


Believe me, when talking about "clever," I was not referring to some whippersnapper crying about, "If they would only listen to meeeee!" I was not specific enough, and I further twisted the meaning by using Von Hammerstein-Equord's term, "clever," without thinking about the baggage that goes with it. I was thinking more along the lines of somebody with a demonstrated record of exceptional problem-solving performance and a reputation as the go-to guy.

Also, the griping that I'm doing is about truly pathological process paralysis.

Many, if not most, folks I have known are more than happy to have a go-to guy in the bullpen. They recognize the talent and often strive to reach the same levels of mastery over something. The master craftsman types I've known all share humility that drives them toward self-improvement.

Over the last several years, I've noticed an explosion in the numbers of young, brash, inexperienced naifs with hyperinflated estimations of their own intelligence. Some learn humility. Most move-on out of my life, and I haven't the least bit of curiosity where they went.

The people who make my stupid-industrious people list are crazy. They seethe and moan that, "so-and-so just traipses-in like superman at the end and gets all the credit." This is an actual quote, dripping in sarcasm, that I heard during an after-action debrief, spoken by an untouchable manager with no clue that he put his own project in peril due to his own incompetence and that so-and-so [not me] pulled his stones out of the fire. This man is not only an ass, he is an ass who honestly believes that he was robbed of credit because of some cosmic roll of the dice rather than seeing the contrast between his own wilful ignorance and so-and-so's work ethic, experience, and mastery of craft.

Since then, this particular manager volunteered to spearhead the information security compliance part of the business (nobody else wanted it), and he positively revels in the cross-cutting control he exercises over other people's domains. He is stupid, has boundless energy, and has finally found a job that matches his abject lack of capability, that is, one in which the only result that matters is how many checklists are completed.

To paraphrase another well known brash and inexperienced incompetent, "So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to process or Sarbanes-Oxley management controls or antipathy to people who can actually accomplish things or exhibit sound judgment or autonomous reasoning as a way to explain their frustrations."  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Sun Jun 08, 01:45:00 PM:

Good evening All,
I work in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH)and have been perturbed by "conform versus perform" for many years.
I am busy with the development of an OSH management system with the aim of cutting the requirements or amount of 'conform' but at the same time prevent injuries fatalities and damage - any ideas would be most welcome!

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