Mistaking Process For Purpose and Tinkering for Thinking Pt. 1

Process and method are both necessary aids and major obstacles to innovation.

Process is clearly necessary for organizing thought and action, planning rigorous research, and aligning groups of people towards a common goal. However, people have a tendency to elevate process so that it becomes the end in itself and not a means to the end.

A quick review of business literature over the past three decades provides ample evidence. From Total Quality Management (TQM) to Management By Objectives (MBO) to Theory Z to Six Sigma, processes have been formulated, illustrated with case studies, labeled with mnemonic sound bites, and promoted as a guarantee of success – implying that anyone can achieve their objectives if they follow the process. They typically claim one-size-fits-all relevance to any organization, big or small. The more successful ones generate best-selling titles, juicy speaking engagements, lucrative consulting gigs, rock star status, and presidential awards for their authors.

Once they cross the chasm of early adoption, everyone wants the process and its promise of success. And then begins the long tail of repeated attempts at applying its principles until people get bored, realize that one size does not fit all, and jump to the next process trend.

TQM is a great example. It originated as a response to the ‘economic miracle,’ in which post-war Japan was aggressively taking market share from North America and Europe with innovative products at competitive prices. The primary instigator of Japan’s success was the American engineer and statistician W. Edwards Deming, who, working with Japanese business leaders after WWII, established something called the System of Profound Knowledge. (A moniker that should have immediately raised suspicion.) It was based on four simple principles:

1/ Better design of products to improve service.
2/ Higher level of uniform product quality.
3/ Improvement of product testing in the workplace and in research centers.
4/ Greater sales through side (global) markets.

In 1985, the US Navy elected to apply Deming’s principles to improve its operational effectiveness, branding the effort Total Quality Management. Soon after that, TQM gathered momentum through adoption by the rest of the armed forces and the US Government. It then hit business like a tsunami as companies leveraged it to compete on government contracts and to win back share from the Japanese.

Institutes were named after it, academics studied and embellished it, books were written about it, and management consultancies milked it. But by 1995, after a 10-year arc, TQM was all but dead, supplanted by ISO 9000, Lean Manufacturing, and Six Sigma. The process was dead, but the problems remained.

Why does this happen? Why can’t business overcome its addiction to process, even after the success it promises has clearly proven illusory?

It is critical to step back and look at the context of these trends. They are all generated by an obsession with operational efficiency. By definition, operational efficiency is highly reductive. It attempts to remove as many variables as possible to reduce costs and enhance productivity. While ostensibly focused on product quality, its repeated application inevitably results in an obsession with process quality, to the point where the process is mistaken for its purpose.

In this setting, process is presented as the guarantor of controllability – as if human endeavor were akin to an assembly line. You can use it over and over again in a regularized manner, honing it as you go, to the point where the so-called “best practices” are nothing more than a very effective way of generating an outcome that is easily packaged, understood, manipulated, distributed, and consumed.

In this sense, it is a predictable outcome of late capitalist manufacturing. One way to compete is to be disruptive and innovative. Another is to be ruthlessly efficient. It was far easier and much more acceptable for the industrial giants of the 20th century to adopt the latter strategy because the products of their efforts had always derived their meaning from the production process itself. This is why “people” were referred to as “consumers.” It was easier and tidier to position them as the last stop in the value chain, reducing them to statistical entities rather than accepting them as the messy, unpredictable, individualized beings that they are.

Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.

Will Novosedlik is AVP, head of growth partnerships at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.
Paul Hartley is head of human futures and senior resident anthropologist at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Will Novosedlik

Will Novosedlik is the former Head of Growth Partnerships at Idea Couture. He is currently a strategist and storyteller at large.