September 2013
By Andreas Guenter

Image: © Dmitriy Shironosov/

Andreas Günter is a technical writer since 1998, works on comprehensible text composition and is interested in the scientific principles of technical communication. He works in machinery and plant engineering at Coperion and works at tekom as Dokupreis-evaluator and qualification consultant. He has collected and evaluated process descriptions for process management and incorporated them in a writing guideline.




New modern times?

Every company with a modern management employs process management. Technical writers who adopt the process perspective when developing their editorial guidelines catch a glimpse behind the curtains of process management and might uncover some problems.

Some time ago I received a peculiar promotional flyer from a service provider offering a consulting service. The flyer showed a man in a suit climbing up large cogwheels that were set up like steps. The caption read: “Technical documentation – The process“. I directly made two associations. I thought of Kafka’s novel “Der Process“– one man against a self-referential bureaucracy. I also thought of images from the Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times“– a man in the wheelwork of machines. Now I assume that these associations flowed unconsciously while creating the flyer, but certainly the creator of the flyer did not become aware of them.

Cogwheels can be found in as good as all illustrations on the topic of process management, and also often with people or colourful small men that interact with these cogwheels. Cogwheels are a symbol for workflows smoothly enmeshed with each other, but can also be understood as an image of an inhuman wheelwork. The saying, just a small cog in a large wheel accurately describes the problem of process management in a nutshell. So much for the background with respect to cultural science. Let us now look at the management theory and weight its practical pros and cons.

What is process management?

Process management is one of the most prevalent methods of modern company management to manage customer requirements, resources and costs. It considers the workflow organization rather than the organization structure as represented by an organization chart. The processes and value adding elements are identified and improved in these workflows. This in turn requires measurable quality, preferably expressed in key figures. This quality can be optimized and therefore allows an increase in efficiency. Lastly, process management is also a form of standardization, because a process runs optimally only when it is standardized – thus each process is considered like a production process in principle.

The theoretical advantages of process management and the associated optimization are therefore quite obvious. A process should become more simple and dynamic; at the same time observing and documenting each process step leads to more transparency and improvements of quality and flexibility.

The value-added chain

One of the roots of process management is cost calculation. This includes determining the costs and distributing them (cost center accounting) as well as calculating the price of a product. In the latter process, the preliminary services are deducted from the service, i.e. everything that was put into production beforehand. This gives the value-added, without which the entire entrepreneurship would make no sense and of which even Karl Marx has already spoken.

Thus the process of service provision is accompanied by value addition, an increase in the value. This value addition is the reason why the customer buys a product and thus the value addition is equal to customer benefit in process management, in short. However, before I go into the details of customer benefits, I would first like to talk about the description of processes.

The process model

The processes are documented and represented, usually in flow diagrams with specific symbols. The description of a process in this way is very simple and therefore also easy to track. There are symbols for input/output, process step, decision and approval as well as arrows that connect these symbols and show the flow of the processes.

All processes within a company are combined in a process model. The processes can be arranged on three levels:

  • Service or core processes that are directly related to the provision of service, i.e. sales, production, development, service
  • Support processes such as HR, IT, finance, quality management
  • Management processes, that specify targets, or even visions and also include controlling.

The key to a process models is to consider the processes and not the structure of an organization in units and departments. This means that we look at the vertical process flow rather than at the hierarchical horizontal structure.

Process cascade and writing guidelines

In an organization with a process model it is necessary to break the processes down into a so-called process cascade of main, subordinate, auxiliary and child processes. Through this one can drill down from the core and service processes to the individual processes. But it is necessary to consider that there is a limit somewhere to what can be reasonably described as a process. A writing guideline for process oriented technical writing often moves in this area between departmental tasks with the company processes and the work within the writing department. It is then useful to see the writing guidelines as an accompanying document for the technical documentation process, in which the sub-processes within departments are described, which in turn again refer to the necessary checklists and work instructions. This gives us a process cascade up to the bottommost work steps, without blowing these up into activity-oriented process descriptions.

A difficult implementation

The following prerequisites are mentioned time and again for a successful implementation of process management:

  • Transparency
  • Open communication
  • Define targets
  • Define responsibilities
  • Allocate resources

It is not that simple to fulfill these prerequisites as it might appear at first glance. What are the obstacles?

Hurdle of “informal organization”

A new process management is difficult in smoothly running organizations in so-called informal structures that have developed through self-organization of processes that are in practice. Informal organizations are efficient and successful; ultimately there were good workflows before process management as well. Process management then puts over processes that don’t improve anything and this is perceived only as an additional effort.

Hurdle or “Process optimization”

Identifying the weaknesses of a process is probably the most important task of process management. This task is expressed at many places through the continuous improvement process (CIP), which considers improving the process as part of the process. The weak points of a process show up notably well in banal everyday problems. If you have to continually resolve errors or run after incomplete information during your work, if you have too many emails in your inbox that don’t concern you, if you have to keep on filling out forms and tables for controlling, then these are certainly signs of processes going wrong. Even unclear responsibilities, poor work allocation in the department (some work too much, others too little) and unilateral responsibility without allocated decision-making authority (with many queries and decisions that are not transparent) show that the management processes are not running well.

Resistance from the employees

Not taking the fears of the employees seriously is a large risk while implementing process management. This leads to open or hidden resistance. Company managers must always assume that something is not going right in the implementation, when these phenomena occur, because this means the employees are not convinced of the meaningfulness of process management.

Distorted picture of customer orientation

As already addressed before, customer orientation is a key issue. According to the theory, a customer buys a product only if it adds value for him. Therefore all competitors are fighting for a higher value addition through their products. Furthermore, at the end of the day the customer pays for everything that is behind the price of a product, i.e. salaries and wages, taxes, interests for the investors and last but not the least the profit of the company. Let’s take a closer look at this.

In finance theory we have long let go of rationally thinking market players under the influence of behavioural finance and this should also be taken into account in management theory. People simply want Apple or Volkswagen products and pay more for them than objectively equally good products from Samsung or Opel; this has more to do with brand image and psychology than with customer benefits.

Be it lasagna with horse meat, deceptive packaging on supermarket shelves or printers that do not print further after 1000 pages without the services of a technician, the question of customer orientation hardly comes into the picture. But can we rule out that these firms also practice process management? Therefore the seriousness of the orientation towards customer benefit should first be analyzed self-critically, before paying pure lip service to it.

Everyone is a service provider

Because customer benefit is too far away and abstract for some workplaces, we appoint an internal customer in process management, who appears in the form of another department for instance, to which the result of a process (output) is to be provided. This ensures that customer requirements reach through without gaps. The employee sees himself as a service provider directly for a customer.

Indirect controlling is implemented at the same time. Unlike traditional direct controlling, where one is told what to do, the employee is only specified a target in indirect controlling. The employees are expected to regulate themselves and become small entrepreneurs. They invest more of their own potential and every individual is supposed to directly confront market and customer requirements and perform better because of it.

Only the result counts

We have generally seen that process management first promises many advantages in theory and can primarily be an effective instrument to improve processes. There are however problematic aspects as well. The implementation effort is very high, particularly in an already functioning company. Resistance from employees is not easy to overcome and a loss in the structure is difficult to digest, especially for the middle management. As opposed to the good intentions, this could result in inactivity and fixed cost center thinking with more bureaucracy, if process dependence spreads. Overextended process thinking then leads to heaps of processes and thus a loss of improvisation and responsibility. In this case every department only considers whether their processes are clearly described, and delimits itself from other departments. Then you have achieved the exact opposite of what you had intended. A change in perspective is all that is required here. Instead of paying attention to the process, only the result counts – the output.

A social phenomenon

Finally, it is necessary to have a vision of the complete picture. When debates on burnout syndrome, employee monitoring or economization of society are taken seriously, one recognizes that process management is not just about improving processes for smoother operations but also about making the most of human resources. But human capital can best contribute to value addition when the emphasis is on human.

Standardization of human work processes also accompanied industrialization in modern society, and could be recognized from trade and manufacturing though to the production line, and this is where the story takes us back to Charlie Chaplin. In a post-industrial service company, process management can be misused as an instrument to continue this development. Even behavior controlling and normative guidelines don’t have to be justified anymore with this almost religious belief in management theory. It originates from mainstream society. Criticism of it must be allowed and should not be interpreted as rejection.