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A helper against us

In Quality Assurance, how does any process begin? From a definition, born of necessity, with the guidance, for instance, of the ISO 9001 standard, which instructs us to identify the processes in our organization and define them. That is, to decide how we perform them, which we may put in writing, so everyone can verify in the future, if they forget. We call that “procedure”.

Beware of too many procedures

In fact, the standard in its 2008 revision only instructs that six procedures are to be written, and not to get carried away by making too many procedures, unless absolutely necessary. [September 2019 edit] On the other hand, the 2015 revision makes no specific requirement at all, leaving it to the discretion of the organization.

When too many procedures exist, they turn into unnecessary bureaucracy, their number growing beyond the people’s capacity to know and remember them, and instead of serving a tool to assist us they become a burden. Too many procedures are a number one reason for disorder and mess in the organization.

Illustration: procedures

Don’t believe me? Take a look, for instance, at what is happening with the countries’ laws. These are procedures, instructions of how to act. That is, they were in the beginning. And what have they become today? There are so many laws, corrections, paragraphs and sub paragraphs, additions and amendments that no lawyer is capable of knowing them all! Today there are dozens of sub-professions, specializations for the legal careers such as administrative law, civil litigation, constitutional law, corporate and commercial, criminal, environmental, family, immigration, intellectual property, international, labor and employment, real estate, securities, tax, health, insurance and whatnot. Do you really think we need all these laws? Or that anyone can possibly know them all, so that when a new law is proposed they verify all the older options, any parallel/opposing laws are eliminated/combined/corrected? That would be mission impossible!

This is precisely what happens in an organization with too many procedures.

Illustration: changing the rules

But how do procedures multiply and why?

This is how it occurs: a new manager arrives, and begins by studying the procedures. He sees some practices which go against his approach to business. “Who wrote this nonsense?” he thinks to himself. “Nevermind, I’ll set that to right immediately”.

A change in procedure is a change of the way we state that we work.

The new manager decides to write new procedures to replace the “wrong” ones he disagrees with. However, he doesn’t read them all, doesn’t know all the existing ones, and fails to do due diligence. Meanwhile, time passes, his “new” status gets old, the workload catches up with him, and he no longer has the time to continue…

The process repeats itself with a new manager of another department, and the one to come to replace him… and in a few years there are hundreds of procedures in the system, which grows monstrous.

Why do we need procedures at all?

The objective of a procedure is to simplify and organize work, as well as coordinate all the functions. The worker, or his supervisor, turn to a procedure as reference, when a doubt or question arises and they need to decide how to act in this or that case. After all, they cannot be expected to remember everything by heart, nor is it necessary, and things occasionally change.

But when they get into the system and see the hundreds of procedures their only response would be… getting out and fast. It isn’t possible to locate what they want in the mountains of paper or the endless lists. It would take forever, and who has time at work to look for a needle in a haystack?

Thus it comes about that a generation of workers rises who do not know the procedures, and do not use them. A “word-of-mouth” culture develops. What they know, or think they know, is passed from one to another, trusting their own or the collective memory.

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And if no one is sure? A way would be found. But consulting the procedures becomes more and more infrequent, and they become bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake. Something to show to the ISO auditor. No longer a helping tool designed to serve the workers and simplify their work.

The result, as I said, would be a mess in the organization’s processes. The procedures, which are designed to be our helpers now turn against us.

How do we know whether a procedure should be written?

Well, that’s easy: we look whether people work according to the procedure – or not. After all, if it is common knowledge what to do and how to do it and all is going well, why multiply paperwork? But if people do not work according to the procedure – then we have a problem. And no, it is usually not one involving worker discipline.

As you probably know, it is not difficult to find out whether people work according to the procedure defined. And too frequently the answer is “no”. We discover it during audits, visits, problem solving and corrective action planning, customer reviews etc. And whereupon we have stumbled upon it, a familiar scenario unfolds where we attempt to solve the problem of “how to make people work according to the procedure”, which is a mission destined to fail before it began. Why would I say that? Well, because if procedure is not being followed then chances are high it will continue not being followed. In most cases there is a reason for that.

It is much more difficult to find a situation where everyone follows the procedure defined.

Orchestra - harmony

Why do they not work by the procedure?

Because the people defining procedures do not understand the true purpose of a procedure.

And what is the true purpose of a procedure? As I stated above: the purpose is recording what we have decided to do, so that we could verify, if something was unclear or we are unsure, so everyone could work in a unified manner, and all coordination between the different functions and operations would be clearly defined.

And what does that mean, what we have decided to do? It means defining the process in the best, shortest, simplest, most efficient, logical and harmonious manner to perform the job together. Like an orchestra. Each instrument plays something different and sounds differently. But in an orchestra we do not wish to hear all the instrument separately, while together they create this marvelous harmony, which no single instrument can produce.

In other words, to operate in an orderly and organized fashion, efficiently.

Correctly defined procedures lower variance in the system, increasing its efficiency.

Therefore, if it too many procedures are characteristically not being followed in your organization, it is a clear sign it has still not comprehended the purpose for their existence. Procedure makers in such organizations are certain that the purpose is, instead, forcing everyone to work according to the written procedures, and that everything and anything must be written down. Such is more often than not the opinion of external auditors and consultants offering audit services, as well.

Wait, is that not so? Shouldn’t people work according to procedures?

Of course they should. But the difference which I wish to stress here is that following procedures is not the purpose, but the result.

The purpose is, as stated previously, to simplify the work, make order and organize, to harmonize.

Confused? Allow me to set all these confusing concepts straight.

Not work reflecting procedures, but procedure reflecting work

The standard instructs us to identify the processes and define them in detail. That is, we are instructed to first decide on the very best way to operate, and it states not that it would now turn into the holy gospel. It doesn’t ask us to set it in stone and turn it into the Tablets of Testimony.

Therefore, if we want people to work according to procedure, we must define the procedure in the best possible way and in agreement with the workers.

What does that mean, the best possible way? It means we must define the process to be the best, shortest, most operable, most logical, efficient and harmonious that we possibly can. And who knows best what is the better, most operable, logical and efficient way to do the work? Those performing it! Thus we must involve them actively in the definition of the process, and as a result – the procedure. If the workers are the ones to define the best way to operate the process, clearly they would have no objections to following the procedure in the future. They would own it, accept the responsibility for the process and the procedure. It would no longer be something the decision-makers, who aren’t 100% aligned with the process, forced down their throats.

Illustratin: simple and complicated

I know first hand how sometimes details we think we know about the process’ operation, upon closer inspection turn out to be… let’s call it… imprecise. And the workers know that, and that knowledge hurts them but they keep quiet, out of lack of belief anyone would take their opinion seriously. They operate a process which is not defined from within, out of the intimate knowledge they have of it, and they care about the lack in definition.

The workers care? Really?

Unsure you would agree? Let’s see if I can persuade you.

Have you ever been told that this or that operation has not been done because “there was too much workload and they had no time”? They feel the waste of time and inefficiency acutely, and it bothers them. They want to do a good job and be efficient!

What will happen if, instead of thinking we know everything there is to know about the process and can therefore dictate to the workers what to do, we would just accept the fact that they know the process infinitely better and actively involve them? What would happen if we cease to assume they turn their brains into storage at the entrance each morning, and would just allow them to take responsibility for their jobs?

I will tell you what would happen: people would follow procedures, because they would have been the ones to have defined them!

Illustration: production line

Our job is to serve the workers

And if you do that job well, if you remember at all times that they are your internal, and therefore, the most immediate, customers – you shall have full cooperation with these workers.

The workers are also the ones who suffer the discomfort of an incomplete or improperly defined process. And whose responsibility is it to solve this? Process engineering, maintenance or whichever department is supposed to make tools and gigs at your organization. Have you ever turned to the engineer or process engineer with a suggestion to design a tool to simplify an operation, only to have an answer of “the worker should just pay better attention”, or that the engineer simply has no time for these things?

I would like to remind all engineers that the purpose of existence of all departments is to render service to the operations units, which are the reason for the whole organization being there. No time to give service to the worker to make the process simpler and more logical to operate? This is the reason process engineering exists in the first place! If they do that, there would be fewer non-conformances and more time for us all to do the other parts of our jobs!

And are telling us that we'll get more results this way?

What would happen if we placed the workers’ needs above our own comfort? If we respected their time and effort as much or at least no less than our own? If we remembered we are here to serve them? Well, what would happen is they would come to us with their difficulties, bring their ideas for solution, be involved in the process and committed to operate and improve it!

People love doing a good job. They love being heard and having their ideas appreciated, being taken seriously. It makes them feel good about their job. And a worker who feels good about his job does a good job, has better results, cares more. Quality improves.

The result would be the efforts required to “make people follow procedures” would fall drastically, and we could all focus on just finding the areas where we have still missed something.

Again, the purpose is not working according to procedures, but defining procedures according to correct work process. If people don’t follow procedures, it is a sign they have been:

  • incorrectly defined,
  • unclear to people or
  • no longer valid.

In all cases the responsibility does not lie with the workers, the problem is not lack of discipline, and the solution is not “making people follow procedures”, – it is to change the procedures to more correctly describe a better process.

Remember, a procedure is a helper, a tool, and if it turns against us – we clearly aren’t using it correctly.

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