The Goldilocks Parable: How Much Process Is Just Right

Getting process improvement "just right" is difficult. Go too far in the definition of processes, and it really does get too hot, with the heat coming from the people trying to use the processes. On the other hand process definitions that are too short to contain anything of value will leave users in the cold, and then there will be no improvement in the organization. Ed Weller states that a useful process improvement activity develops a set of process artifacts that meets the needs of the user. This helps the organization capture "tribal lore" and cast it into a set of process definitions that eliminates waste and improves time-to-market.

What are the guidelines?
The Capability Maturity Model-Integrated (CMMI ®) provides a useful—but hard to quantify—statement about process definition. The Organization Process Definition Process Area states, "These elements are described in sufficient detail that the process, when fully defined, can be consistently performed by appropriately trained and skilled people." (Emphasis mine.) In this statement, "elements" refer to process elements. This definition has utility whether you are using the CMMI for guidance or not.

The trick is figuring out what "sufficient," "consistently," and "appropriately" mean. I have seen the best and worst of process definition, unfortunately erring on the "too much" side of "sufficient" often enough that people take the view that process improvement can be categorized into the "Big P" and "little p" camps, and that "Big P" is always bad. This article will help you to quantify the above three terms, hopefully helping to define useful improvement processes for your organization no matter what dimension is chosen.

What is a process?
Simply defined, a process is "a sequence of steps to achieve a given purpose." They are useful when they prevent us from re-inventing the wheel when starting a project. They are especially useful when many people in different parts of an organization do the same tasks. It reduces friction (wasted energy), and frees up time and brain-power for solving the tough problems rather than having to invent a presentation or documentation method for the task.

Who are the "customers" of process?
The process users are the customers of the group that develop and document processes. They can be divided into three groups: expert, average, and novice. 

  • The expert user, one with many years of experience, needs brief process descriptions, templates, and checklists. Templates and checklists are valuable for preventing omission and enable consistency across multiple process executions.
  • The average user may want more guidance; a process step may still be new, or not frequently used. Access to guidelines or training material is valuable.
  • The novice user will want step-by-step lists of activities, thinking these will ensure correct execution of the task.

Compounding the problem of over-documenting processes is that process writers may have little background in technical writing. A novice's description contains every step in the process, including "Open template, Save as..." One has to ask, if they need to be told how to open and save files, why are they even attempting the task?


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