The Procedures Manifesto
They are all around us: procedures. By definition, a “procedure” is an “established way of doing something.” From the time we are children, we learn different procedures, such as how to brush our teeth, how to make a phone call, and how to order food at a restaurant. As adults, we learn procedures like how to file taxes with the IRS or how to renew our passport or driver’s license. All of these procedures are comprised of smaller series of tasks, and each task might follow a given best practice, required sequence, or be improved upon by the addition of a tool.
Seems simple, right? Not so fast––like many things, after one procedure is established, other procedures can dilute the original idea. Let’s look at a common example, the prized possession of virtually every teenager: the driver’s license.
We have to jump forward to the point where you actually know what you have to do to renew your driver’s license, so let’s assume you looked up all the details online or received a piece of direct mail on the topic. In many states, this procedure can be accomplished by mail or online, but for an unlucky bunch this means a trek to the motor vehicle office with hordes of other unlucky souls shackled by the same procedure. At this point, you have gathered your necessary documentation in order to prove to the state that you desire to maintain the right to operate a motor vehicle. You then present your documentation, pay your fee, possibly sit awkwardly for another unflattering photo, and––poof!––out pops your driver’s license, an identification device used in likely thousands of other procedures in our lives. The procedure of renewing your license, as painful at it may be, is a necessary evil to ensure general driving safety, but all the other procedures that are designed to leverage a driver’s license add to the requirements of the license-renewal procedure.
At this point you should be wondering why we let other procedures rely on yet other procedures as prerequisites. The answer is often efficiency or cost savings. If every time you went to purchase something that required a proof of minimum age, like alcohol or cigarettes or, heck, even spray paint in some areas, you would have to prove your age to the store to get some sort verification of proof (like a shoppers club card from a grocery store that allows you to pay with a personal check). That would not be efficient, so stores rely on your state-issued ID in its most common form, a driver’s license, to indicate your age, and after a little mental math on the clerk’s side, you walk away with your age-restricted purchase.
Now let’s talk about tools. In recent years, purchasing some cold medicines has now required use of your ID/driver’s license. This was a measure put in place to limit the amount one could purchase in a fixed period of time and relied on your driver’s license to prove age and identity. Some merchants leveraged their checkout systems to scan the barcode on the back of your license to extract the necessary personal information. This made the procedure more efficient for both the customer at the counter and the other customers waiting in line. The merchants who chose to use the tool weighed the procedural efficiency and cost savings of not having to key in customers’ personal information and upgraded their purchase systems accordingly.
Reality-check time. Procedures are around us constantly––we are simply stewards of information at various points during the procedure. When we don’t understand how a procedure works or don’t know the requirements for any given task or are not using a tool properly, the procedure breaks down. You, as the steward of information in a procedure, have failed.
So whether you are the information steward or the procedure innkeeper, do your job well. Strive for perfection and settle for nothing less. Keep the following principles of process improvement in mind as you continue in your role as a steward or innkeeper:
Don’t shove the wrong secondary procedures or requirements onto other core, relatively efficient procedures. Be sure to keep an eye on the core purpose of the original procedure.
Measure, measure, measure.
If you can’t quantify key steps in your procedure, you are doing something wrong.
Beat down the status quo to constantly improve.
Apple doesn’t make design that redefines product categories by assuming the first draft was sufficient. Think like an agile developer.
Leverage existing standards.
Someone else sat around before you did to determine the best practice or most efficient data model, so use it––at the very least––as a starting point.
Tools must be usable.
You would likely not buy a hammer whose handle was too wide or narrow for your hand for use in the procedure of building a house. The tools you use to accomplish your procedures therefore must, must, must be usable, first and foremost. Close behind should be accessibility (mobile, desktop, off-site), extensibility, and scalability.
Transparency will set you free.
Knowledge is power, and sharing what you know about a procedure can pave the way for others to learn and for the process to improve in the future.
A clean procedure supported by the right tools and monitored by the right analytic platform is a recipe for success.
Author: John Carew