There Is No Process Until It Is Observed

(Image Credit: Doug Buckley of

I realized today that there’s a little bit of a quantum effect in quality management:

There is no process until it is observed.

Here’s what I mean. In the August 2012 issue of Quality Progress, Lynne Hare writes about how simple flow charts can be useful diagnostic tools. Just ask multiple team members to describe or characterize a process they’re familiar with… and see if they come up with the same thing! He says:

“My opening gambit was to ask each of the six team members to separately draw a process flow diagram. How many of you think I got six different flow diagrams? In fact, I got seven: One person wasn’t sure, so she drew two.

Clearly, the flow diagram exercise underscored the fact there had been no common understanding of the process; therefore, there could be no process control, no variation reduction opportunity and no path to improvement.”

I’ve seen this first hand! Most recently, it happened in our Spring 2012 “Quality and Process Improvement in Action” class at JMU. One student team was trying to document the process used by a community agency to link small businesses with resource providers who could help them develop their products, services, and marketing. After interviewing each of three stakeholders, the team ended up with exactly three vastly different process flow diagrams!

They were confused and dismayed. “What can we possibly do now?!?! We’re stuck!”

Fortunately, we (their professors) had seen this sort of thing before. When all of the stakeholders have a different sense of the process, this provides a pretty strong clue that they have never contemplated the steps of the process before, and how those steps are interrelated. More significantly, they have never shared an understanding of the process. Even though they have all been doing work, playing their roles, and serving a purpose, they have not been working together as part of a process – even if it seemed like they were!

Because the process has not yet been consciously observed by the group of participants, there is no process!

And as Lynne Hare points out in his article, without a common understanding of the process there can be NO process control — NO opportunity to reduce variation — and NO way to improve. If you find yourself in this situation, make it a point to get those participants and stakeholders together and consciously observe the process.

Once you do this, you make it real, and end up with a basis for moving forward.

I’ve Converted to OrderTopianism

Yesterday was really a fantastic day for me. In addition to starting it off right with a total solar eclipse at 2:11am ET, January 15th will go down in history as the first time I placed an order using OrderTopia. It will definitely not be the last time!

OrderTopia is a social, cloud-based ordering system that integrates directly into the point-of-sale (POS) systems at local merchants (such as restaurants). You place an order online, or with your mobile device, and the OrderTopia system automatically processes your payment and contacts the right people at the right places in the kitchen to construct your meal order.

The process improvement benefits are evident on both the customer and the merchant sides. As a customer, I don’t have to wait in line any more or keep giving out my credit card information – OrderTopia already has it as part of my account. I just walk into the restaurant at the time I said I’d pick up my order, and it’s there, ready for me to go. On the merchant side, all data quality issues between the time you place your order and the time it’s fulfilled (for example, the cashier misinterpreting what you say, or typing it wrong into the POS system) are erased. By eliminating those steps from the process of fulfilling your order, the path through the system is also shortened.

I can also sense that OrderTopia will improve my quality of life in the future. I won’t be spending valuable minutes waiting in line for lunch — nor will I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I should order – I’ll just be clicking on a “favorite lunch” option on my Droid, specifying the time I want to pick it up, and then showing up to get my lunch. It will be like having a personal assistant, only it will be OrderTopia. I’ll be able to see what lunches my friends have ordered around town, find out who likes what, and track what I’ve eaten too. In the future, I’ll never worry about how long the line is at one of my favorite lunch places… or whether I’m going to miss out on Eppie’s Wednesday tamales because I showed up too late… OrderTopia will take care of it!