A Process-First or People-First Company?

We regularly use process maps in meetings with our clients.

They are a great tool to clarify the best work that we do in our company, and to talk about best practices. They create alignment and provide an opportunity for people to share and evaluate new ideas that can help us improve the way we work – potentially, better or faster or at a lower cost or error rate.

Improving processes are helpful as guidelines for people to do great work.

But leaders can go too far when don’t trust their people to have good judgment or do their work effectively. Then, they use and layer in more and more processes, thinking they are solving their people problems.

The Bureaucracy Ball

And that’s where the bureaucracy ball begins to roll. Process on top of process, approvals on top of approvals. The next thing you know, ordering coffee for the staff room is a three-page process requiring seven people to approve the transaction – every week.

One organization we work with had multi-page, multi-column checklists for each employee to complete, every week. These were designed for the least capable person to follow, step by step, to get the job done.

This isn’t a people problem. It’s a failure of leadership.

Process First or People First

As companies grow they generally go down one of two roads:

    • A people-first company: A belief that there are highly capable people to hire, and train. They trust in people’s character and their competence to get the job done well and provide room for people to have autonomy and use their brains.
    • A process-first company: A belief that people can’t be trusted to make good decisions and think for themselves. They are given a paint-by-number, step-by-step approach to every single thing, with checklists, safety mechanisms and double-checks.

When processes become too much, complicated and hard to follow, they actually make the work more difficult and then leaders prove themselves right about people.

It’s a balance: enough process for amazing people to be successful versus building incredibly detailed processes designed for people who are not naturally capable in the roles.

A bureaucratic, constricted, process-first company is not a place high-performing A Players want to work.

Ask Questions

As a company grows, it’s easy to start out with one kind of culture and end up as another. So, when things aren’t going well, it’s important to look at your processes and ask:

  • What is this process designed to do?
      • Does it work?
      • Is it too complicated?
  • Has the business outgrown it?
  • Is the right person in the right role?
  • Is there a leadership problem?

The Challenge

    • Does the culture of your company default to more process or to more capable people?

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