What is a Process

In the simplest terms, a Process can be defined as

“A set of interrelated activities that transform inputs to deliver an intended result.”

Let’s think of an example.

Imagine a theoretical conveyor belt.  Workers load wood onto the conveyor belt at one end, and completed wooden chairs roll off the other end.  Along the conveyor belt itself, there needs to be several activities that take place to transform the raw wood into the completed chairs, e.g.:

  • Measure wood
  • Cut wood
  • Assemble pieces into chair
  • Varnish chair

What we’re describing, in quite generic terms at this point, is the process for building wooden chairs in our theoretical factory.  Obviously such a generic, or high-level, process is not really that useful for managing quality, but it’s certainly a foundation to build on.  That comes later.

Each element in a Process can perform different functions.  Some, like our simple example above, works purely on physical materials to produce physical goods but a process can work with information, energy, equipment, people, etc. or a combination of any of these resources.  The inputs and outputs of any element must always come from somewhere and go somewhere (just as it would in a physical factory).

Flow Charts

In very simple cases, a brief list of activities like this is ‘good enough’, it allows the flow of activities to be explained in a simple way.  However, we can also illustrate this flow graphically.

We can combine these elements to produce a Flow Chart, which demonstrates the logic of a Process.  Let us try a quick exercise.

Imagine our chair making example again.  The current process, as we’ve stated it, can be drawn as follows:

Basic flowchart

If we think about it logically, this process isn’t realistic.  There are several steps before and after the ones we’ve already identified.  These would include:

  • Order raw materials
  • Receive raw materials, adding to Warehouse
  • Measure wood
  • Cut wood into pieces
  • Assemble pieces into a chair
  • Varnish chair
  • Move finished chair to the Warehouse
  • Distribute chair to end customer

So, we could redraw our process using these additional steps, but let’s add a little more first.  These steps will be performed by different teams in our factory.  Grouping these tasks by the teams, gives us the following:

  • Goods Inwards – To receive the raw wood, varnish, glue and other materials needed to manufacture the chairs
  • Procurement – To purchase the raw materials on behalf of the company
  • Operations – To prepare the materials, and assemble and finish the chair
  • Distribution – To move our chairs to our customers once sold

We can leave the supporting functions (e.g. Sales, Marketing, HR, Finance, Legal, etc.) in our factory for now (but see the note at the end of the chapter for a suggestion) and we can redraw our process based on the departments in our chair factory, rather than the high levels steps taken. 

You’ll also note that our process currently is designed to manufacture when materials are there, with no prompting from Sales.  It’s simplistic, but works as an example.

This gives us the following process:

Swimlane diagram

You’ll notice that we’ve changed our diagram a little.  We still have the basic layout as before, with each box leading to the next in a logical order, but we’ve now split our process horizontally.  This is called a Swim Lane Diagram, due to its resemblance to the lanes in a swimming pool.

What this allows us to show is the different teams/departments involved in a process (shown to the left of each lane) and the steps they are responsible for (the steps shown within each lane).

We now have our High-Level Process Diagram.  This can be used to explain the way the operation works to newcomers, without moving into much detail.  However, that’s perhaps its best use as we can’t do much with it as it stands just yet.

Each activity on the chart (apart from the Start and End objects) can be broken down further into processes of their own.  We call these sub-processes.  This only needs to be done when there is a clear benefit from doing so.  For example, we could break down the Varnish chairs activity into the following steps:

  • Collect varnish and brushes from Warehouse
  • Wipe chair down with tack cloth (a slightly sticky cloth used to remove sawdust)
  • Varnish chair
  • Move chair to drying area to dry fully

The key thing to note at this point is that none of the steps above rely on knowing anything about any other part of the process outside of the Varnish chair activity.  If you think back to our first explanation of a Flow Chart, the assembled chair is an Input to the activity, the activity performs the function of varnishing the chair, and the Output is the varnished chair in the drying area.

A term for this kind of thinking is Closed Box thinking.  Effectively, each activity can be a ‘closed box’ that takes an input, does something, and produces an output and people don’t need to know how it works inside.  At the other end of the spectrum is Open Box thinking, where people need to know how the activity is performed and can interact with it during the operation.  Open Box thinking is usually used during a testing phase or when a change is being made, as it allows the checking and tweaking of the activity to ensure it’s working as it should.  It’s the business equivalent of a mechanic running your car with the bonnet up … it’s not what you need or want day to day, but it’s useful to do occasionally.

Using Closed Box thinking means each Activity can change in any way it needs to internally and provided the input requirements and output specifications don’t change, no other part of the process needs to change in response.

This is useful when we discuss Continuous Improvement in a later Chapter.

So now let us consider the Measure wood and cut into pieces activity.  To ensure that the Assemble chair activity can work effectively, both these activities need to be working on the same design of chair.  This means the pieces that are cut match the design, which then enables the assembly of the chair can work smoothly following assembly instructions.

What is often found in manufacturing activities like this is that some effort is made in determining the best or most efficient way to perform an activity to minimise waste, be that time, spare material, effort, etc.  This efficient way, once determined, is typically documented and followed by team members working in this activity.  This kind of document is called a Procedure.  If you remember our earlier definition for a Procedure, it is a ‘specified way to perform an activity’.

However, as we move away from the manufacturing industries and into the service industries, we can see that such detailed procedures do not always exist for every step in the process.  Consider a firm of architects.  They would probably have structured processes for the way they work, and perhaps some procedures for parts of their operation (such as client onboarding, gathering customer requirements, responding to tenders, for example) but they will also have some far less structured activities.  Activities such as designing a building structure have a great many factors to consider in the process, including customer requirements, desired aesthetics, materials to be used in the construction, etc. and it can be counter-productive to try to document this activity as it may stifle the range of creativity an architect needs.

Let’s consider a more extreme example … an artist producing sculptures.  The artists process will be even less structured and less documented.  Trying to enforce a structure and documentation on a creative process such as this would likely suffocate the creativity the artist is trying to use.  That’s not to say Quality Management has no place in such an organisation … it’s just that it will be a different form of QMS than in a factory, and likely be less structured and well documented … and that is still OK. 

The QMS must fit the organisation rather than seek to constrain it.

Resources

Resources

Let us now think back to our High-Level Diagram.

So far, we’ve identified the flow of activities in our factory, and the teams needed to operate each activity.  You could imagine this as having an empty factory, and a piece of paper describing how we’re going to work.  However, we still can’t operate our factory as we have no trained staff, no materials, no equipment, etc.

Our next step is to start considering what resources we need to operate our factory successfully.

The resources we need to consider include:

  • Materials – Resources that are consumed by the process of generating our product/service
  • Equipment – Any equipment we need to perform the activity
  • Environment – Any specific physical environment we need for an activity
  • People Skills – What skills do the people need to perform the activity successfully
  • Information – What information does the step need.

If we identify and record these five resources for each activity, we can start to pinpoint the key elements our QMS needs to manage to ensure the process will run smoothly and consistently.

We can do this in an Analysis Table like the one below (I have completed it for several steps to show how it works):

Activity NameSelect Wood from WarehouseMeasure and Cut Wood into PiecesAssemble Chair
InputLumber available in warehouseSuitable lumber in Production AreaLumber parts
MaterialsFuel and oil for forklift truckLumberLumber partsGlue
EquipmentForklift truckHi-Viz VestSawsChiselsMalletsSaw benchClampsAssembly table
EnvironmentWarehouseProduction areaAeembly area
SkillsExperience of assessing lumber for visible grainLicence to drive forkliftBench joineryBench joinery
InformationLumber specificationChair designChair designChair assembly instructions
OutputSuitable lumber moved to Production AreaLumber partsAssembled chair

Important Note – Typically when a company first starts considering formal Quality Management, they focus on the operational elements that deliver goods/products to customers.  However, the internal functions of a company that such operations rely on (such as HR, Finance, Legal, etc.) can all consider Quality Management from their own perspectives, with the different elements of the company as their customers.  In fact, such exercises often help companies be more successful overall.