Process Proximity

“A snowy white stallion in a field over the bay is galloping at breakneck speed towards the trees.  Behind it, up in the sky a jumbo jet seems to be crawling across the sky and, far on the distant  horizon, an oil tanker seems to be hardly moving at all, though it is probably doing at least twenty  knots.”

We see some processes, which are nearer changing more quickly, and they can even become blurred to our vision.

When we look down a street at a line of street lamps stretching away into the distance we have the ability to recognise that, though the further away lamps look smaller, they only appear that way by virtue of their distance. It is dangerous to assume that our competitors are not engaged in similar processes to us, that they are not also dealing with increasing rates of change.

Similarly, inside our organisations, it is easy to assume from they way we manage processes in our jobs, tat it is only we who are under pressure, only we who are working at such great speed!

When we focus on processes close to us, we also need to compensate in our awareness of other processes, not so close to us.

If we stand just a foot from the edge of the road as cars move past, they seem to tear past at great speed. Cars, which are further away, seem to move more slowly. If you’ve ever been on a train leaning your face lazily against the window just as a train has gone by in the opposite direction, it seems to shoot past almost like a bullet!

Being to close to processes means that it usually appears to be moving faster. As with the train, it is very hard to observe in detail – the train is just a blur of speed! It may be that we have to create a distance between ourselves as observers and the process we are observing. Innovating a process may require us to take a step back from it. Our distance from a process I like to call ‘process proximity’

Story time

A manager writes:

I remember we were in a meeting to discover what was causing the regular quality problem of poorly glued parts on our assembly line. We got all of the operators, the supervisor and a production engineer into the room for a meeting. We discussed, we brainstormed and we looked for root causes. After two hours we still hadn’t made any progress. The meeting ended, we set another date, and the problem continued. At the next meeting we fared no better. Questions were asked, data from the line analysed but still no joy. The answer was probably right there before our eyes but we were too close to see and the days go by to quickly what with all the pressure of work to really get an objective view.

A week later I decided to invite someone from a different department to see if they couldn’t see the obvious. So I asked Suzanne and she spent a day on the production line chatting to people and generally watching what was going on. It was made clear that no one would be blamed if we found the problem. And what did the problem turn out to be? Our jigs, which held the parts in place were designed for right-handed operators and we had two young left, handed operators who had been too nervous to speak out unless they got into trouble! Suzanne saw the problem immediately.

We’d become so focused on speed, on meeting, even exceeding our schedules that, not only hadn’t we seen the
problem, but we’d also created a pressured environment in which people were afraid to speak up! And we thought we were a jolly team!

That set us on the road to making the culture changes we needed to put it right. The next meeting, we took a step back from the whole process and invited suggestions and ideas on all sorts of ways of reducing pressure, whilst maintaining quality and lead times.


Process Proximity Audit

This simple technique lets you look at the processes you engage in from the perspective of your closeness or distance from them – your proximity to them.

List the processes that make up a typical day at work for you.

If you need help with this, here are some examples of processes I engage in on a typical working day:

Writing, Checking my writing, Editing text, Dealing with inquiries, Sending letters, Meeting clients, Planning time,

Reviewing completed work, Typing up ideas and notes

Then put a tick next to processes, which you think might benefit from you stepping back from them and looking at them more objectively from a distance.

For me, I am always too close to my writing and an editor helps me to step back.

Also, put a cross next to any which you feel you might be a bit too distanced from and might need to take a closer look at. the process.


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