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Well, It Hit the Fan. Now What?

This completes thoughts posted November 22, 2011 at JimMillikenProject.blogspot.com


            The interface between workplace process and human behavior is a busy place. There often are big gaps into which valuable stuff disappears. There often is painful friction or crippling scar tissue.

            People tend to chafe at process, because it limits freedom and demands work. Yet people need process to support their efforts and ensure useful output. Process is predictable and rational; people often aren’t.

            Right there, in or on top of the grinding interface, is the home of the manager. The job often is not fun, because it’s not designed to be. The more ambitious the enterprise, the more constant are the demands arising from process and the problems arising from people.

            There can be a lot of discomfort in managing the combination of process and people. The most comfortable way is to cool it. Leave the process largely alone, and keep the lid on the people while not pushing them too much. Ignore or suppress variances. Nothing changes very much, as long as things don’t get too bad – or some external force does not collapse the operation.

             If something hits the fan, there’s really nothing that can be done. Not in this easygoing, low-performance management. You see a lot of that. Too many of your organizations, in business, industry, education, government function that way.         


            The good manager, conversely, is a master of the entire contradiction. This person invests the effort it takes to research, invent and operate effective processes, while leading people productively. This good manager also is an excellent problem solver – swift, creative and purposeful in responding to undesirable variances in the processes or in the human environment.

            First, the processes. A process is a series of sequentially dependent steps designed to achieve a predetermined outcome. The process is set up and tuned constantly to ever more reliably get the defined results.

            The more clearly the outcome is defined, and the more efficiently the steps use time, resources and effort, the better the process is. It is intended to be repeated, and in each repetition the good process manager works to spot and reduce variances. The ideal is total predictability.

            Then there are the people. People rarely do the same thing twice the same way. Most of us don’t have the patience and discipline to be endlessly precise in reproducing an unchanging action. We get bored and careless, if not resentful and rebellious.

            People are stimulated by change, newness. They can focus much more successfully, over time, when things vary. Of course, most people can handle repetitious work, and we do, but unending precision is not our strong point.


            So process and people are not a natural fit. But people need process. They are seriously hampered when there is uncertainty in the processes of their workplaces. They need things to be the way they’re supposed to be. They just don’t want to be too subject to the demands of predictability themselves.

            Good leaders understand the pressures of those realities, and manage process as well as people to maintain the best possible balance in the interaction. That requires sound planning of processes and relationships and constant attention to their functioning in the workplace.

            Effective managers design and install processes that will work, and recognize that no process is good for very long without adjustment. They keep in close touch with those who work in the process, and with those affected by it, and they understand how to make useful changes.

            These managers know human nature as well as process management. They lead collaborative problem solving. They listen, respond, include others. They know how teams and groups work, and they invest time in getting to know individuals, and they build trust.

            When something hits the fan, you turn to them. They’ll have a process ready, And, if you need it, a new fan.

Organizations need frequent tune-ups to maintain effective workflow amid change. Jim has long experience – plus creative tools -- to help executives analyze their organizations, then design and implement better ways.
Project Management is the 21st-century model for managing complex, risky innovations to on-time outcomes within budget. Jim Milliken offers workplace-tested designs in customized formats for onsite implementation and classroom training.
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