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MacNeice and Bowen discuss the High Performance Process - 3: Achieving the Gold Standard

22nd November 2016 | Brian MacNeice, James Bowen

MacNeice and Bowen discuss the High Performance Process - 3: Achieving the Gold Standard

Our last two articles, focused on the Process pillar of our Powerhouse model, have described the process problems we observe in the institution we study and work with, and secondly the attributes of a “gold standard” high performance solution. In this, the final article in this series, we want to focus on how institutions can design and implement such gold standard process models.  

In the first instance leaders need to understand that leadership and management processes take place in a much broader organizational context, as such, as process “architects”, we have to make use of the full organizational design toolkit to help us make progress.

For us, in addition to process, there are 4 other individual tools in this kit:

  1.       Organizational structure – The roles and responsibilities of participants and groups as leaders of the institution, its functions and its operations. In the round with regard to the entirety of the model and specifically with regard to, for example, information provision or decision-making for individual elements.
  2.       People – The capabilities and experience of those taking part, as well as their attitudes, motivations, and other behavioural standards (e.g. for attendance, preparation, participation, follow-through) as participants in the model.
  3.       Information – The nature, timeliness and presentation of information to support the processes taking place.
  4.       Physical (and virtual) environment– The nature and setup of the locations where processes take place – from buildings and physical infrastructure, to individual settings and layouts, to technology setups and configurations. The alignment of where we work with who we are, and how we work.

Broadening out the toolkit in this way on the one hand creates lots of design options, but on the other adds complexity to the job. In practice high performance leaders recognize that process design is complex and takes time, resources and real commitment. It also takes an understanding of cause-and-effect across the areas listed above - progress in any of which has the capacity to deliver multiplier benefits, while absence of consideration/progress can cause the functioning and effectiveness of the whole institution to collapse.

Startup institutions have the luxury of creating process models from a blank canvas. Leaders of startups can implement comprehensive process blueprints and then “fill them up” with people and work. (Note we saw institutions like Tata use this approach to deliver real impact in new subsidiaries and ventures).  Existing institutions don’t have this luxury. Rather they have process models in place that – for better and for worse, through a combination of accident and design – enable their operation and performance over time. As a result process transformation in existing institutions, by necessity, needs to provide absolutely clear direction, to be explicit about those aspects of existing models that are to be maintained and leveraged and, in particular, to be explicit about identifying and addressing those aspects of existing models to be eliminated or transformed.  In our client work we have often come across situations where new processes have simply been layered on top of old, with the effect that competing messages became widespread and an already chronic “squeeze” on the requirements and calendars of leaders became even worse.

The first step in high performance process transformation is to understand the institution, and more particularly its vision and strategy, as the delivery and evolution of this Vision and strategy represents “true north” towards which efforts must be oriented. From this, senior leaders should create a “design brief” – in essence a short document that articulates the scope of the exercise, a high-level description of “how we want this place to work” in the context of its Vision and Strategy, and the key measures and targets (quantitative and qualitative), that link to this and bring the brief to life. Fig. 1 shows an illustrative process scope for a business institution.

Fig 1. Indicative Scope of Process Model Design


Facilitating cross-leadership team discussion of the brief is, in itself, a valuable step in this process, as it builds understanding, alignment and commitment while also allowing “quick wins” to be identified and pursued. In our experience, however, it is rare for briefs of this type to be created. As a result, we have found that many process transformations “start in the middle”, with limited, narrow perspectives on scope and on what they are trying to achieve.

Having agreed the brief, the overall process model should be broken down, under each of the areas of scope, into that which happens (or needs to happen) daily (and in some instances, hourly), weekly, monthly, quarterly and annually. From there, leaders should look to establish a small number of core cross-functional and/or functional “anchor processes” around which we can design the model, working piece by individual piece.

In the same way as process design is hard, so also is process transformation. It requires conviction, commitment, expertise, resources and (some) patience, as well as a disciplined focus on weeding out unhelpful/obsolete processes wherever they are found. Setting an explicit, stretch goal at the outset is helpful in this regard as a means of focusing attention and effort. For example one institution we studied adopted the standard of eliminating 2 hours of management process activity for every one hour that they added. Actually, practically achieving a transformation of this magnitude requires leaders – who by the way are typically trying to do a “day-job” at the same time – to be provided on an extended basis with relevant, fit for purpose support and coaching.

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