Policy and Process

I am a process geek. I love working out how to make a process more efficient. However, sometimes working on your process is the wrong thing to do. Sometimes, you need to take a step back and work on your policy instead.

First, let me define my terms, because both “process” and “policy” get used a lot, and it will help if we’re clear about what I mean by them. To me, a policy is a statement of a desired outcome. A process is a recipe for how that outcome will be achieved. There are usually multiple different processes that will conform with a policy.

For example, the policy in my house is that kids will be in bed with their lights out at 8:45 p.m. The process by which we get there involves showers, snacks, and bedtime stories. We could get the same outcome lots of different ways, but we’ve discovered that this particular process works well and produces reliable results.

Sleeping Baby
Successful application of an earlier iteration of the bedtime process.

In our work lives, a lot of policies are implicit, and we’re just handed processes: “Here’s our onboarding process.” We’d do better to think more about policies, though. Policies are more likely to stay constant as the group grows or their work changes. The onboarding policy might be that each new employee should know where to find key things and information, and who they can ask for additional help. The process by which that is reasonably achieved will be very different in a 10 person company than it is in a 1000 person company. In fact, the best process to achieve that goal is likely to be different across different functional groups in that 1000 person company.

Even if the policy is implicit, you’re unlikely to produce a good process without understanding what it is. To go back to my bedtime example, if I didn’t know that my goal was to get the kids in bed at a reasonable hour, I might be tempted to add some extra playtime into our “process”- after all, we all like play time!

That is a trivial example, but it does demonstrate the dangers of not knowing the policy behind the process. One of the most common complaints about processes is that they are bloated. One reason processes get bloated is that people tend to tack on extra steps for reasons at best peripheral to the main goal, or policy behind the process. It is easier to resist this temptation when the policy is clear.

Another advantage of being clear on the policy the process is meant to implement is that this will lead to better decisions when extenuating circumstances require you to take shortcuts with the usual process.  In our bedtime example, forgotten homework assignments or out of town visitors may lead us to want to shorten the bedtime process. The policy states our priority: getting the kids in bed by 8:45. The policy doesn’t say anything about whether or not their hair needs to be washed, and that is because sleep is more important than squeaky clean hair. Therefore, we might choose to skip the shower in order to get to bed on time, rather than delay bedtime in order to get that shower in.

Focusing your management attention on policy over process is also a way to return more control to the people who are actually doing the work. Your role as manager is to define what work needs to get done. You don’t have the time to dictate how that work gets done, and if you try, the nicest thing your team is likely to call you is “micromanager.” Let the team work out their process, once you define the policy.

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