Has process lost its meaning?

My first meeting of the business process management support group. Hey, I’ll admit I was nervous. It went something like this:

Chris: (sits down in the empty chair)”Hello everyone, my name is Chris and I’m new to this group.

Everyone: “Hi, Chris”

Chris: “I’ve been using the word ”process” instead of describing specific system outcomes since…I can’t even remember. I did this recreationally for a while until I joined the software industry where I found myself around other people, colleagues and customers who used the word process indiscriminately. Before long, I was matching them, word for word, unaware of how my behavior was affecting my customers, my colleagues, even my wife and my children.”

Chris: (clear his throat and presses on) “Thankfully I hit rock bottom a couple of weeks ago when I asked the customer to confirm that he was talking about the process of process. I was way far gone and I might have even said ‘meta-process’. I know, I know, you’ve been there, too. It was a rude awakening when my favorite customer looked into my eyes with a glazed look and said ‘Wow, you need help’.

Everyone: (heads nodding) “Amen”,  “Uh-huh”

Chris: “But at that fragile moment, a coworker that I used to see at conferences, shouting ‘it’s all about the business architecture!’ pulled me aside and said ‘you’re where I was. I know where you can get help.'”

Chris: (with visible relief) “And that’s why I’m here”.

Everyone: (applause and shouts from the crowd) “we’ve been there, brother”. “Its about the business outcome!”

Chris: (his voice dropping to a barely audible whisper) “I now realize that talking about ‘process’ was confusing, misleading and was tearing my life apart. People see the value and appreciate you for talking plainly about better business outcomes. It’s really about increasing customer satisfaction, cutting cost…connecting people, delivering information wherever work gets done and giving people the ability to make the right decision with the right amount of information delivered in the right moment.”

Back to reality

Ok, it didn’t happen quite this way. But I did come to the realization a few years into my time in business process management that the term ‘process’ has lost meaning. Whatever it once meant, it now has about the same value as the word ‘excellence’. It means something different to everyone.

In fact, the best analogy comes from The Simpsons, the cartoon that is more about real life than most live-action TV. When his employer wants to give Homer a meaningless award, he receives the, “First Annual Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence.” It is wickedly ambiguous but seemingly meaningful, just like ‘process’. The reality is that process is the activities that take place to achieve business value…specific business value. So if that’s true, why don’t we talk about the value and not use vague terms? I know that my customers are looking for cost savings, compliance, orchestration of ERP transactions, etc.

The ‘Process’ Pledge

For the next month, I will make every attempt to avoid the use of the word ‘process’ in my business dealings and my blogging. I will focus on the business outcomes that matter, not the jargon that has lost its meaning. Wish me luck!

If you’d like another take on this challenge, check out Ian Gotts’ blog, Making You Think.

Thank you, PEX, for this great video.


Categories: Continuous Improvement, Disciplines, Featured, Process Management

Author:Chris Taylor

Reimagining the way work is done through big data, analytics, and event processing. There's no end to what we can change and improve. I wear myself out...

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16 Comments on “Has process lost its meaning?”

  1. January 25, 2012 at 5:25 am #

    Chris, I get your point. However, I believe as BP professionals, you and I have an obligation as teachers to create a common meaning for the word “process.” In my experience, when I walk away from a client company, having spoken individually to a large percentage of the process stakeholders, I have created a lasting change simply by creating a common understanding of the meaning of “that” word. Don’t give up! We, who know, can start a revolution.

  2. January 25, 2012 at 5:35 am #

    Here here Tom!

    Good luck Chris, report back. Tom and I will be here waiting for you. 🙂

  3. January 25, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    At one point in time, I attempted to clean up the definition of business process management on Wikipedia. Within a week, it had been edited at least a dozen times – so, I agree that there are many different ‘connotations’ surrounding process…

    • January 25, 2012 at 6:41 am #

      Thanks, Scott. I had a call just yesterday where it started with, “OK, everyone, what definitions can we agree on for process, BPM, and business analyst.” It was a necessary step.

  4. January 25, 2012 at 9:35 am #

    When I 1st came in to this space it was understood that a process could be anything – for instance preparing for work in the morning – requires a process or routine you follow in order to achieve your goal of getting out of the door. I do not think that we have lost that concept, we need only to point out to our clients well as to help them to recognize the processes and routines they use on a daily basis to complete their tasks. Coming from an imaging system space and working for a long time on paper based process conversions I used to run into the same issues explaining it to clients.

    So I would define as such:
    A series of steps and rules required to meet an objective:
    Paying an invoice, Adding a new client to a list, etc…

    • January 25, 2012 at 9:47 am #

      Love that definition…it falls right in line with my desire to stop using the word ‘process’ and get on with it.

  5. January 25, 2012 at 11:36 am #

    Process needs to be qualified, such as Business Process, as in Business Process Management. Otherwise it can be a function of as food product

    • January 25, 2012 at 11:38 am #

      True. It’s the challenge of being in the BPM space that we can even forget that!

  6. January 26, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    For LSS purposes: Look at a product or service at any point within the value stream (production system, etc.), then look at it at any later point. If the product or service is different in any way, there was at least on process in between.

    Again, for LSS purposes: A process is a transformation that turns inputs into (different) outputs.

  7. Russell Swanborough
    January 27, 2012 at 12:05 am #

    Whenever you are tempted to use the word ‘process’, pause and rearrange the sentence to use the word ‘information’ instead.

    Your enlightenment has begun.

    • January 27, 2012 at 7:25 am #

      Great comment. I will probably use that to update the blog post.

  8. February 1, 2012 at 3:51 am #

    You got me thinking after reading this. I understand what you’re saying to a certain extent but I don’t fully agree in this case. But you can check out my reaction on my blog. http://allygillcouk.blogspot.com/2012/02/maybe-process-management-isn-enough.html

    Thanks for the food for thought!

  9. jim jacobs
    February 4, 2012 at 6:20 am #

    Process whether used in business or other applications is here and not going away. Everything we do is process. Your body functions on process. Result is only the result of process. The better the process the better the result.

    • February 4, 2012 at 8:33 am #

      Yes, I couldn’t agree with you more that process is here and not going away. I also agree that the better the process, the better the result (and the information available as context around the process). The challenge comes when talking with people who aren’t steeped in the process culture and vocabulary. Business owners and the senior execs that approve process projects need to hear much more than ‘process speak’. They need to hear about the great outcomes they can get. My own observation: The less I use the word “process”, the more the non-practitioners seem to support what I’m saying.


  1. Harmony matters more than getting things done? | BPM For Real - April 4, 2012

    […] a quick succession of articles about high hopes for BPM, predicting BPM’s demise and my own swearing off the use of ‘process’. Why have there been so many articles around the same theme? What drives people to pen such […]

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