When I was a graduate student in engineering management at the University of South Florida, one of the courses I took for my degree was a course on Six Sigma. Although the term has become mired in jargon, the essential nature of the goal of this particular phenomenon is quite straightforward: to reduce error to the point of near-elimination (far less than 1%) by working on processes. Rather than seeking to work harder, one works smarter in ways that serve to eliminate order and make life more smooth and orderly. If one was thinking in terms of fluid dynamics, as I am prone to do concerning the course of life, the more one makes a flow laminar (that is, a regular flow) as opposed to turbulent, the less one’s chances of error and the better one’s results will generally be. This is a predictable truth that holds over disciplines and across a wide span of human behavior. So long as one is paying enough attention to one’s surroundings, those actions that are habitual and with proven processes will tend to work more smoothly than those actions which are novel and untrained. Much depends, in other words, on making sure one has the right habits and works to have the best processes.
Whether we like it or not, whatever our lot in life, we are all part of processes and we all behave with processes. Some processes are personal and even a bit eccentric. For example, I come from a family of tea drinkers, and each of us has our own characteristic “tea ritual” to make our hot tea (or, in my case, iced tea) the most appealing for our tastes. Water is either boiled or microwaved, tea bags are placed in the cup or pot and steeped to a certain level, there may or may not be milk added along with reheating, or the adding of ice or the pouring of tea into a class to be cooled in the freezer, along with fairly tight amounts of time devoted to each of these tasks. Included, of course, is the adding of sugar to proper levels (proper according to one’s taste, and not necessarily one’s health). As odd and quirky as the process may be, it is not a haphazard one, but one that has been perfected with years of practice by all of the tea lovers in my family, even if may look odd to outsiders.
Much of the time, whether in our work life or in our personal life, the processes we are a part of or that are a part of our own habits escape our notice. Because they are so automatic, we often do not stop to consider why they developed that way in the first place or whether they are in fact optimal for our goals. So long as life is progressing well enough, our processes do not catch our attention because they are working, or so we believe. It is only in times of great crisis and difficulty that we are forced to examine our processes and find the blind spots in our habits that have led to some terrible problem. This is true on the individual level and also on the level of institutions and communities and societies. Of course, once one has reached a period of crisis, it is less productive to change and one tends to have fewer resources (albeit greater motivation) in changing. Yet it is the motivation that often serves as the biggest factor in whether change will be made, as there must be enough pain to overcome our inertial tendencies (a rather fancy word for laziness) for us to make the sort of drastic changes that are required to be more effective. Additionally, processes that are acceptable in some circumstances are not always acceptable in the future, when other factors are at play. All too often we continue acting in modes of behavior that are no longer appropriate for how times have changed, and we do not tend to notice this until and unless it is forcibly brought to our attention through the course of events.
In my class on Six Sigma, I learned formally what had been true long before (and that remains true even today): I have a marked preference for pull factors rather than push factors when it comes to processes . Our class was divided into various functional work groups (foundation, structure, roof) and we were given the task of building block houses (sort of like the Ed Sheeran song, only minus the romance), and we were at first given different design orders and told to build them as fast as possible and push them onto the next group. This did not go partiuclarly well, and there were a lot of mistakes and a lot of delays given the chaos and confusion. After having proven the point effectively that most of the automatic way of working by trying to push things was not very successful, we then changed the process and kept the same people at the same positions. Rather than push, we focused on pull, and when the experiment was repeated matters improved much more rapidly with no errors. A mere change in process had made the same task more rapid, more effective, and a lot less stressful for all of us. With the point proven, we were able to appreciate our studies.
When one is dealing with work process flow and operations, clearly efficiency is of the highest concern. The original problems between different functional units were not signs of some sort of deep political problem, but rather the frustration that results from trying to do one’s job as well as possible within a suboptimal process flow that causes bottlenecks and delays and mistakes and results in frustration to everyone. This sort of situation is lamentably common when it comes to work, as processes and the people within them are not given enough give to be able to work effectively and what should be an easy pull system of everyone pulling work to do and freeing up resources and space for those in who are upstream. Being able to pull work rather than having to push it leads to a lot less stress, if it is at all possible, and far better results. Yet people continue to try to push and push anyway, even though it doesn’t work, possibly because they don’t trust others to pull their weight. Not everyone is an overactive striver, after all.
Where concerns are more political than technical in nature, efficiency of process may be counterproductive. Although as an engineer educated in two disciplines (civil-structural and industrial) I tend to be biased in favor of efficiency, that which is most useful is not always what is most efficient from a technical standpoint. Political processes, where concerns are not always about the efficiency of a given activity but rather its desirability in the first place, and where it is necessary to justify, deliberate, and build trust and consensus, reward inefficiency of a particular type that is designed to lead to the desired goal of greater support for a plan. In political endeavors, it is not the efficiency of a process but the amount of support and motivation for doing a task, that is the most decisive element, and motivation is a tricky element to master. An example should suffice. A few years ago, the church were I attend was surprised by a full-blown plan for massive construction and relocation efforts by the person who was president of the organization at the time, rolled out not for discussion but fully developed, not welcoming of input and criticism (and there was plenty), with a quick timetable for voting. Needless to say, the process was designed to be efficient, but it was ineffective in building consensus. A narrow majority passed the proposal the first year, but a majority overturned the acceptance the following year, and the action was decisive in leading to a politicized environment that led to a drastic shift in political worldview among the leadership of my church and to a sharper conflict between different wings. Such conflict was probably inevitable when one is dealing with leaders who wish to command and lack the skills to motivate and encourage, but it did lead to a great deal of stress. Notably, since the plan was pushed by a leader, this is more evidence in the difficulties caused by push efforts that are missing pull factors demonstrate the wide acceptance that a problem needs to be solved in the first place, as well as trust in the ability of leaders to solve problems successfully. Where such confidence is lacking, it needs to be built before a technical plan can gain acceptance by those whose support and effort is crucial at success.
So, when we are dealing with processes, we have a lot to examine to handle them well. First, we need to understand who the process belongs to. Do we own this process or not? If we own it, is it a process that is technical in nature? If so, then we need to understand what factors are involved and solve it as an engineer would, with a focus on efficiency and making sure there are enough resources throughout the system where they are needed. Do we own a political process? If so, then we need to make sure our focus is spent on building trust and confidence in those who are important for the process to be successful. This is not always a straightforward task to accomplish, but political matters seldom are. If we do not own the process, then how we handle such matters depends on what would be the most necessary and proper task. Is our input respected by those who own the process? If so, then we can share suggestions and areas of concern and improvement. If not, we might be wasting our breath, unless we have to do so for our own sake, regardless of the outcome. As complicated as processes are, at least we can hope that the processes we are a part of work well and do the right things. We can hope, at least, that this may be the case at least sometimes in our lives.
 See, for example: