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As any organization grows, there’s a point where the you can no longer manage finances on a spreadsheet, no longer manage priorities on a whiteboard, and no longer manage the team by looking around the room. Usually this starts by compiling a list of principles that the team agrees to uphold while they do stuff (like at Amazon or Google). Then, the team gets big enough that there are enough smart people who can find enough grey area within the principles, that rules need to be written down. Also, “go ask Steve how to do that” doesn’t scale. Steve can’t do his own work when he gets interrupted 50 times a day to explain something, and the other 49 people aren’t getting anything done while waiting for Steve.

At this point the organization needs to formalize its Business Process Management (BPM) and governance structure. Joy!


Transitions from informal to formal systems are hard (image: xkcd.com)

Most people resist structure of any kind when the administrative burden (the squeeze) is greater than the perceived benefit (the juice):

  • sales guy: “Ugh! Expense report? Why can’t you just give me a company credit card?”
  • product marketer: “Ugh! Creative services request? Why can’t you just give me edit permission on the company website?”
  • my kids: “Ugh! Chore chart? Why can’t you just give me cookies?”

As you get started deploying (or overhauling) the BPM system in your organization, remember to keep the system as lightweight as possible while still achieving the intended benefits. All the principles of Leading Change, such as “there is no such thing as over-communication,” still apply. Now let’s get to the definitions.

There are four essential components to a BPM system:

  1. Policy: a collection of related principles and guidelines that explain “why” an organization does stuff a certain way. Policies sit in the background and define the rules that should not be broken when following the processes and procedures built on top.
  2. Process: a sequence of actions and decisions that describe “what” happens to achieve an outcome. Processes can fit within or across organizational boundaries (functions, geographies, business units, etc.) and define the work that humans or IT systems perform.
  3. Procedure: instructions describing “how” to complete a certain step in a process. Highly detailed procedures are often called work instructions.
  4. Standard: a “definition of done” that sets the level of quality for work defined in a procedure or process. Standards can also set boundaries around the time our resources consumed when completing work.

Notice how this structure mirrors the why, what, how structure seen elsewhere, like in sales, and explained in Sinek’s classic book (check out the TED talk video, too). These components are modular, meaning that your team can make revisions to one part in response to new business goals or requirements, without necessarily changing another part. Remember, however, to check the implications of a change before implementing it, for example if a change to a standard would push the required level of quality outside the capabilities of the existing process.

Here’s an example most people have experienced:

In a restaurant kitchen, the goals are clearly defined: make consistently delicious food that customers will enjoy every time they visit. There are a number of policies in place that establish guidelines and rules to govern work in the kitchen. For example: everyone will wash their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom, raw food will be stored in certain containers at a certain temperature, cutting boards for fish won’t be used for fruit, etc. Next, there are processes in place to achieve specific outcomes. For example the process to receive an order from the dining room and deliver the ordered dishes to the pass. For each step in that process, there are procedures that the kitchen staff to execute the work, for example the method to cook spaghetti carbonara. Lastly, the steps in the process to deliver the food that was ordered must conform to standards. These standards include the taste of the sauce, the temperature of the dish when it hits the pass, even the type of plate it’s served on.

If the restaurant is a local, family run place, maybe none of this information is every written down. Cambridge, MA legend Clover Food Lab has posted its employee training documentation publicly since opening, which includes policies, processes, procedures, and standards. Ferran Adria posted a sythesis of elBulli cuisine: great example of a policy document in the context of avant garde cuisine. Watch his team’s system of creativity and service excellence unfold in the movie el Bulli: Cooking in Progress.

With a better understanding of the difference between policy, process, procedure, and standard, you can help your organization achieve it’s goals with just enough structure, not more.