On Processes and Systems

For a manufacturer to be Sustainable — to “thrive in perpetuity” [i] — requires the tools necessary to become and remain competitive in a rapidly changing global economy. Many of those tools, including ISO standards and the Baldrige criteria emphasize “processes”. While almost everyone has a vague idea of what “process” means, most are hard pressed to be specific. This post is intended as a refresher on business processes as they relate to improving competitive posture.   — C.H.


The Process Proposition

Edwards Deming [ii] taught that manufacturing operates through an interactive set of processes, and that outputs, such as throughput and product quality, are determined by these processes.

The Process Proposition – the idea that manufacturing operates through systems of interacting processes – is quite powerful. Processes are viewed as entities that can be controlled and managed. If the inputs to a process are known and the conditions under which the process operates are controlled, then the outputs from the process become predictable. Product quality and throughput rates are understood as characteristics of the process, rather than as “art” or as indicators of individual effort levels.

ISO 9000 [iii] defines a process as “a set of interrelated activities which transforms inputs into outputs”.  (Notice that this definition is not limited to shop floor processes — it applies to all business processes, including bookkeeping processes and training processes.) Practically speaking, there is broad flexibility in drawing the boundaries that define processes. For example, consider baking a cake. Simplify the example such that only three “interrelated activities” are involved: measuring, mixing and baking. Whether this should be considered as one process with three activities, or as three separate processes (measuring process, mixing process, and baking process) is a Zoom Lens [iv] choice.

Statistical tools [v] can be employed to measure the extent of variance in process outputs over time. Positive product attributes (such as throughput rate, physical properties, appearance, etc) are increased and negative product attributes (including defects, personal injuries, power consumption, environmental concerns, and so on) are decreased through improved control of process inputs and processing conditions, and through improvements to the process itself. Statistical tools can also confirm that improvement has, in fact, occurred.

A Caveat

The proposition “if the inputs to a process are known and the conditions under which the process operates are controlled, then the outputs from the process become predictable” is, at best, a simplification. It is often necessary to not treat the process as a “black box” and to consider relationships and interactions among the set of interrelated activities that constitute the process.

Eliyahu Goldratt’s The Goal [vi], along with his many subsequent books, warn us against optimizing “interrelated activities” individually, without consideration for the effects of interrelationships on outputs at wider zoom out levels. Further, Systems Analysis [vii] demonstrates that the responses from sufficiently complex (lots of interrelationships) processes, while in principle predictable, may be non-linear.

Thoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated. Click on the title of this post to open the comments section.

…  Chuck Harrington

: Visit Jera’s resource website for smaller manufacturers at: www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com

A .pdf version of this post is available at: http://app5.websitetonight.com/projects2/4/9/9/4/2164994/uploads/Blog_Post_-_On_Processes_and_Systems_-_21_June_2012.PDF 

[i] Werbach, Adam, Strategy for Sustainability, HBR Publishing, Boston (2009), pg. 9


[ii] Deming, Edwards, Out of the Crisis, MIT Press, Boston (2004)


[iii] ANSI/ISO/ASQ Q9000-2000, published by American Society for Quality, Milwaukee WI, (2000), section 3.4.1


[v] These “statistical tools” comprise the field of Statistical Process Control. A familiarity with, and understanding of SPC is essential to properly controlling one’s business processes. See, for example, Donald Wheeler and David Chambers, Understanding Statistical Process Control, Second edition, SPC Press, Knoxville TN (1992)


[vi] Goldratt, Eliyahu, The Goal, Third edition, North River Press, Great Barrington MA (2004)


[vii] For our purposes, the terms “process” and “system” can be taken as synonymous. For a readable introduction to systems and their behavior, see Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsey Green Publishing, White River Junction VT (2008)