A Pitfall of Process Planning

In my workplace, the word “Process” seems like a holy word, one that everyone should bow towards whenever it is seen, read, heard, or spoken. Attaching it to other words makes it even more spectacular: saying someone is process-driven or process-oriented makes them a saint and thus more promotable.

I don’t mind “Process”, but let’s make sure we are using it with the same meaning and understanding. “Process” is good for consistently and repeatedly being able produce an “Output” from a given “Input”. Before we focus on the “Process”, we need to thoroughly research and understand the “Output” and “Input”.

Let’s say that I am a basketball player trying to improve my free-throw shooting. I’ve read and heard a lot of things about free-throw shooting, so I decide to incorporate them into my form: I adjust my posture, bend my knees, think about how I will release the ball from my hand, practice a pre-shot dribble routine, buy a sweatband for my forehead and wrist, and rehearse my breathing and facial expressions so I will look calm and confident as I am shooting. I don’t really understand what each of these adjustments do, but I heard they are good so I follow them. I actually don’t have access to a basketball court, or a basketball, but I continually practice and practice alone in my room these things until I developed a consistent form I can use every time.

Game-day comes and I am fouled and have to shoot a couple of free-throws. My team is down by 1 point, but luckily I have poured sweat and tears into my free-throw shooting over the last 5 months. I assure my team that we will win because I have perfected my form. I then shoot, and the ball then goes over the backboard. Confused, I just figure that some fluke must have happened to that first shot. I use the same form again, and another ball goes over the backboard, hitting an observer in the crowd. We lose.

The observer comes up to me after the game. “How did you miss those free-throws so badly?”, they ask.

I have to defend myself. “I have been perfecting that same form for 5 months!”, I say, pointing to the buckets of sweat and tears that I kept to record just how hard I worked.

“How did you practice and develop that form?”, the observer responds.

“I studied how other expert free-throw shooters do it. I followed their styles and practiced in my room every morning after I woke up and every night before I went to sleep!” I exclaim. I start walking away in disgust at this observer’s lack of knowledge until the observer stops me for one last question.

“How many free-throws did you make when you were practicing?”, they ask.

I start to feel confused, never having considered that question before. “How many did I make? Why would that matter? What matters is that I had perfected my form!”, I answer, and run away.

I run away, not because of my disgust for the observer, but for the disgust at myself, realizing that I forgot that I actually had to put the ball through the hoop when shooting a free-throw. My “perfect form” is only perfect, I finally realized, if it actually puts the ball through the hoop. What I had perfected was a form of free-throw shooting, not a form of free-throw making. I go home and cry another One Liter of Tears.

First comes the goal of making a free-throw by putting a ball through a hoop (Output). Then comes the game of basketball and a person trying to make the free-throw on a particular court with a particular ball (Input). Then comes the free-throw shooting form (Process). A form I practice and develop in my bedroom with no ball may not work when it comes to making critical free-throws on the court at the end of a game. A form optimized for a different person with a different height and hand size may not work for me. A form I practice and develop for an NBA official basketball game may not work as well for a beach court with a bowling ball.

Once we establish a relatively fixed Output with a relatively fixed Input, then (and only then!) should we focus on developing the Process. We can create a lot of value at that point by improving consistency and reproducibility of creating our product, whatever that may be. But remember, if we are changing our product, we need to step back and realign the process. Similarly, if suddenly the resources we use to make our product changes, then we should also realign the process.

Processes can be more definitive for products with well-defined Outputs and Inputs. The more vague our Outputs and Inputs are, then the Process cannot be as well-defined. A well-defined Process for situations where the Outputs and Inputs are unknown is just a homage towards a Process God, a type of Lost Purpose.

Miyamoto Musashi illustrates an example that explains this pitfall of process planning when he says:

“The primary thing when you take a sword in your hands is your intention to cut the enemy, whatever the means. Whenever you parry, hit, spring, strike or touch the enemy’s cutting sword, you must cut the enemy in the same movement. It is essential to attain this. If you think only of hitting, springing, striking or touching the enemy, you will not be able actually to cut him. More than anything, you must be thinking of carrying your movement through to cutting him. You must thoroughly research this.”

Let’s make sure that before we plan a detailed step-by-step Process guide, we must first thoroughly research and understand what Output we are trying to accomplish, and with what Input resources.

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