Updated: Aug 28, 2022
My wife makes the best blueberry pie in the country. I may be biased but trust me it is excellent. She has a recipe that legend has it has been handed down for two generations. It’s written by hand of her Grandmother on a glorified index card. The card is beat up and stained from all the years of use. In our house it is considered a treasured heirloom. I wanted to clean it up, make it a little more legible, eliminate the cursive which I simply cannot read and she proceeded to threaten my life if I touched the card. The recipe makes perfect sense to her even with all the stains and bad grammar. She is not interested in anyone else being able to follow the blueberry pie making process. This little exchange had me thinking about what separates a good blueberry pie from a great blueberry pie and could someone less competent in the baking department follow that process and make the same quality of pie?
It wasn’t hard to find a less competent person because I can barely make toast. So I started my experiment and I attempted to make a blueberry pie when she was having a particularly busy work week following her recipe. The results were surprisingly acceptable but not even close to her excellence. Without the recipe my pie would have not even met the most basic definition of a pie and it would have likely caused a serious illness for anyone who had the courage to give it a bite. If we translate my pie experience to a documented process in a quality management system you could say that a documented processes can help someone get from nothing to at least a fighting chance of making a decent pie but would that process get them to point of making a “great” pie?
As the sage Marcus Lemonis shouts from his television show the “The Profit” everything boils down to People, Product, Process. Finding top notch people is an art form and takes a tremendous amount of both luck and skill in this market and if you don’t have a good product or service than you’re not reading this article because you are out of business. What separates the great from the good is a great process.
For decades American Manufacturing has relied on the traditional documented work instructions to communicate the recipe or relied heavily on the experience of highly skilled, highly experienced technicians to follow the process. In the 21st Century is that still good enough?
Great companies monitor, trim, update, improve and obsess over their processes. Trying each day to minimize variation and help get their team to adhere to a great process.
What level of detail is required and how do you communicate those details
The level of detail in a documented process will differ dramatically based on your goal. If you have never changed the oil in your car where would go to find the proper steps for your particular vehicle? My guess is you would start with You Tube, Google, ask a capable friend, or maybe the car manual? Can the average person change the oil in a specific type of vehicle by just reading a manual? Doubtful so where to you start?
I will give you a hint start with YouTube. I have zero mechanical skills and I recently updated my entire sump pump system with a battery back-up by accessing a simple YouTube video. I have bragged endlessly about my new skill without unfortunately giving proper credit to the YouTube video. I was able to see simple steps and techniques in the video that would not have been easy to document in a written form. To make a good video library all you need is a basic cell phone and enough storage space on a computer to make some high quality videos. How about pictures of the process at each critical stage? You will be shocked at how much people can see and understand about a process by looking at a visual representation versus the written word. Visuals have a tendency to be more succinct and can convey knowledge faster than a written document. When you aim to capture all the nuance of a process with a written work instruction you wind up with a law book.
Who is the person that is creating the process? Someone who has a hundred years of experience and knows more about the process than any other human being on the planet or incompetent person like me who has never made a blueberry pie? My wife is an excellent, experienced cook so the concept of a “dash” of salt makes perfect sense to her. I hear the term “dash” and my brain starts sweating because of the endless possibilities. I would argue a less experienced person would have included some additional details to her recipe that she simply does not need because of her skill set.
A recipe is only as good as your ability to access it
The family blueberry pie recipe is maintained in a tattered, old recipe box that was evidently her Grandmother's at some point so it is kept in a place of honor accessible to only my wife. I would not be able to tell you where the recipe is maintained if my life depended on it. Run a quick test. Ask someone who works in a manufacturing cell where they would go to find an instruction on how to process an order, could they find a good starting point? If you think that is unfair try the same test but ask three different people that work in the customer service department where the instruction on how to process an order is located and see what happens. I would bet in most cases you would get significant variations even from experienced personnel.
In our not so distant past, it was universally understood that real information would have been contained in a public library. That is no longer the case. Who needs a library when we all have a mini computer in our pocket that allows us to easily access information whenever we want. Can your documented processes be kept on something as easily accessible? Could the technician access instructions from their phone, a tablet or at least a central computer system? The days of maintaining “books” of operating documents that are kept safely somewhere in the front office only to be opened by trained hands on the day of the audit are over.
Keep your purpose, vision and expectations in mind
A good process needs to start with a goal. Do you expect the technician to follow rote steps or do you expect the technician to use their judgement based on some criteria to draw an acceptable conclusion when things go wrong? Having a clear understanding of why you want a documented process and what you expect from that documented process is the critical idea that must be identified before you start. A rote set of steps may be the perfect process for standardized tasks where a troubleshooting guide may prove a better documented process when you expect a technician to utilize critical thinking.
It was noted by the great Julia Childs herself that the problem with American cookbooks is that they told people what to do, rather than explaining why, resulting in home cooks not being skilled enough to fix or improvise when issues arose. In Child's own words, "First, you master the science, later comes the art."
Director of Operations
American Certification Group