The Process of Thinking

I’m a big fan of processes. I tell salespeople all the time that there are two ways to sell, by process or by accident. 

Doing things by process allows you to do things much more consistently. Having a process makes it easier to transfer skills from an experienced employee to a newer, less experienced one.

I believe in the power of planning and when people ask for my help with planning I share a well thought out eight step planning process. Things done by process are simply done better. 

Except when they are not. 

Some companies have processes that are so good they haven’t changed them in years. There is a story about a young accountant in the UK in the late 1990’s who was in his first annual budget review meeting. There was an item in the budget for “screens” and the amount was substantial. He asked what the screens were for and no one seemed to know. The line item had been there “forever” so each year they added a percent or two for the item and they moved on. 

Well the young accountant was more curious than the more experienced people on the team so he did a little investigating. He determined that the line item first appeared in the budget in the early 1940’s so in fact it wasn’t there forever. It turns out the “screens” were first purchased to place on top of the manufacturing plant’s smokestacks. Apparently there were planes from another country flying over England at night. They were using the fire at the bottom of the smokestacks as targets for the bombs that were dropped from the planes. 

The young accountant did some additional research. He discovered that it had been a good many years since that other country had sent bombers over England to destroy their manufacturing plants. And yet screens were still being replaced each year because it was part of the company’s process. 

And that’s when processes are not so good. 

When a process, no matter how effective it may have once been, is allowed to replace thinking a host of problems can ensue. 

Most leaders would tell me that their processes are well thought out. I’m sure that’s true but leaders shouldn’t be asking themselves if their processes are well thought out. The question every leader must ask, about every single one of their processes is, how old is the thinking that developed the process?

A process should never replace thinking. No team member or employee should ever be discouraged from questioning a process. Every process can be improved. Every process exists in a changing environment. To assume that any process never needs to change along with it’s environment is a very dangerous assumption. 

So think about every process that exists within your organization. Do you know how it came into existence? Do you know if it is still needed and why? Do you know when it was last updated? Do you know the last time anyone even thought about the process before mindlessly following along without even considering why they were doing it? 

If you can’t answer every single one of the questions with a high degree of specificity then you may have an opportunity for real improvement in your organization. Question every process and don’t stop until you have an answer. It’s likely those answers will bring improvement with them.

Never let a process, even a good one, keep you from thinking about how it could be improved. If you stop thinking you may one day find that even though the bombing has stopped you’re still hearing imaginary planes overhead. 

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