Plagued by what seems like a stubborn process problem in your organization? You may be surprised to learn the culprit probably isn’t your process after all. Here’s what it may be.

At XPLANE, we’re often asked to help potential clients visualize operational processes inside their organization, with the aim to improve how they work together and tell a story about “how things work here.”

These well-intentioned projects are designed to help people navigate the complexities of their organizations, but we frequently find our mapping efforts stall early on. Teams focus on how hard it is to get anything done, roll their eyes at common obstacles, and even have different views of how the process actually works. 

What is really going on here?

We’ve found there are a handful of common derailers, all of which can be addressed by focusing on one critical yet commonly overlooked activity. 

Will the Real Culprit Please Stand Up?

According to McKinsey, 70% of all major process improvement projects fail.

What do these so-called process issues have in common?

In our experience, it’s not that they are process issues. Rather, it’s that they are communication issues.

Example #1: Process Cannot Be the Domain of One

Take, for instance, our nonprofit client that works to develop playgrounds that are safe and accessible to children of all ages and abilities.

This nonprofit’s dedicated, passionate founder wanted to create a visual process map of how such playgrounds get permitted, designed, and built so the organization’s board and staff could help expand their consulting services to cities nationwide.

As we worked with this client’s team to learn that process, we found virtually no one understood the process from start to finish.

We quickly realized the organization didn’t have a problem generating interest in developing new playgrounds. Rather, they struggled to complete the construction of the projects they were already working on because no one knew how the process worked.

We discovered one critical roadblock: the founder. This leader was so enmeshed in the details of each project there was never time to articulate the way things worked. In this case, the process was locked in the founder’s head and needed to be communicated to all. 

Example #2: Process Demands a Gatekeeper

Another client, a U.S. financial services company, was growing rapidly through acquisitions. Each acquisition expanded the company’s line of products and services, which required the integration of multiple marketing processes.

As we investigated how the primary process worked, the teams began raising issues that complicated their ability to execute.

Interestingly, these issues all seemed to occur before projects got into their internal pipeline. Leaders routinely went around the process to ask for favors. Quick-turn requests were rampant. The team struggled with prioritization and capacity to deliver.

What was the real problem?

It turned out that despite the growing complexity of the organization, there was no gatekeeper for all marketing projects—and the company’s project managers didn’t feel empowered to say “no” to leaders working around the system.

The confusion led to overlapping demands, unclear timelines, and conflicting expectations. The right hand literally didn’t know what the left hand was doing. 

An Organization’s Most Important Discipline

In both of these instances, the obstacles related to sharing of information, clarity on roles and expectations, awareness of protocol, and so on were easy to see. And all directly related to communication, the single most important discipline in any organization.

While any number of organizational bad habits can derail a process, clear communication is the one thing that can help fix what’s broken and prevent it from breaking in the first place.

Effective communication also creates and supports openness and transparency, elements critical to understanding outcomes, changes, and accountabilities. Communication is also the key to activating any new process or strategy initiative. 

Avoid a Costly Process Redesign

So as you seek to understand why a critical internal process in your organization isn’t working as expected, take a step back and assess your organization’s communication. (Hint: Look at the leadership level first.)

You might be surprised at what you find—and how effective communication can save time and resources by heading off a costly process redesign. 

P.S. If your roadblock turns out to be a process problem after all, we encourage you to check out XPLANE’s downloadable Visual Process Innovation eBook for process improvement best practices, tools, and techniques.

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