Process Maturity

I started out today to write an entry on Business-IT Alignment. But once I got into it, I realized that the biggest issue with IT-Business Alignment is not in IT. It is the lack of a clear and repeatable processes on the business side. When this exists, the rest of the work is very straight forward. It is the absence of well defined business processes that hamper most IT efforts.

One of the most important concepts that I have learned in my career is the SEI Capability Maturity Model. I don’t often use the 150 or so precepts that are defined for the CMM. What has been extremely useful to me and applicable in so many different ways is the simple concept of “Process Maturity”.

CMM evaluates process maturity using a 5 level scale – Initial, Repeatable, Defined, Managed, and Optimizing. Initial, or Ad Hoc, means that a company hires good people and the quality of those people define the success of the organization. In software development, it means you get as far as your guru’s can take you (the people with the unbelievably deep understanding of the ins and outs of your product). Most companies never get out of this level.

And it isn’t hard to get out of the first level. The next level, Repeatable, only really means that you have defined a process. Even if not everyone uses it and even if it gets good results sometimes and not so good results other times, if you just go to the extent of documenting a standard process for things you move up to level 2. The trick with this level is identifying the right person to define the process. It needs to be someone who is generally successful and you have them document the way that THEY do it.

Now level 3 is where the benefits of the work in level 2 really start to show up. To get to level 3, Defined, you have to have a complete process that is generally successful and everyone has to use it. So the real work to get to level 3 is to take the starting process, get everyone to use it, and then improve it to the point that it is generally successful in most everyone’s hands.

I can tell you from first hand personal experience at multiple companies that the benefits of going through the effort to get to this point are amazing. The first thing I do at every new job now is to get someone to document the “right way” to do things. If you tell people what the “right way” is, they will generally follow it. And the people who wrote it will take the responsibility to update it when other people have problems. So an organization can go relatively quickly from level 1 to level 3.

You can take an organization that is in pretty chaotic shape and in less than a year move them to the point that their output is predictably good, they are easier to manage, and morale improves. It looks almost like magic. Then, I train my managers that “Process is your friend”. Whenever there is a problem, figure out what happened, and update the process to prevent that from happening again. Trust the process. If you get to this point you are on the road to the Managed level.

But the benefits of just this concept of process maturity and these few elementary management perspectives are so significant that I don’t even think it is important to talk about the upper levels. If you can get yourself to level 3 you will do yourself and your company a great service.

And what is even more exciting about this concept is that you can implement it at a department level. You can have the best running organization inside your company. You don’t have to create any kind of corporate initiative or get the help of anyone else. Where your process interfaces with the work done in other departments you will have to train those people that there is a right way and a wrong way to interface with your group. But people catch on pretty quickly when you don’t let them interact with you in any dysfunctional ways. (And when they get away with it, you simply update the process to prevent it in the future.)

An effective, repeatable process is really important in management. And the process maturity concept can be applied in any kind of situation. Every organization is composed of processes. And in almost every organization, those processes can be improved. Take a look at your organization. How mature are your processes?