What is Process?
noun: process; plural noun: processes
- A series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end.
“military operations could jeopardize the peace process”
- A natural or involuntary series of changes.
“the aging process”
- A systematic series of mechanized or chemical operations that are performed to produce or manufacture something.
“the modern block printer needs to accommodate all the traditional factory processes in one shop”
–First definition on Google Search (2017)
“Process” is one of those words that is thrown around a lot, particularly in business contexts. People want to understand and improve their processes. They want staff and outside experts well versed in process. They want to put processes “in place.” However, if you ask what is meant by the term “process”, you’ll find a lot of variation and ambiguity in its definition. With all this process talk, what is it exactly? The google search referenced above returned three definitions that all mean slightly different things. If you keep searching, the variation only increases (and will change even more depending on context).
At Cavi, we have spent a lot of time developing a universal definition for “process”. Here’s what we’ve come up with:
process is the mechanism that transforms energy into value ( = benefits – cost)
Processes Create Value
This definition describes a universal meaning of process. If something is moving, then energy of some kind started its motion; and that energy will eventually transform or dissipate and result in an end to that motion. If there is movement to something, there exists direction, action, and sequence, and thus it is a process. Thus we can also state that “everything that exists in a state of motion in the physical universe is a process”.
Processes can be large, requiring many hours or days, or simple and take fractions of seconds. They can happen once, or occur by design hundreds of times a day. For example, if you put heat (energy) into water, it will eventually boil (undergo chemical/physical process changes), and some value (positive or negative depending on the benefit and cost) will be created as a result. (If you want to understand more about energy and value, which are important to a deeper understanding here, you’ll have to look out for future Cavi blog posts!)
What we can take away from this is a general mantra that “everything is process” and consequently, that everything in motion can be understood, improved, and managed.
This may sound science-y (and it is!), but it applies to everything, including everyday situations. Writing a paper, placing an order, making breakfast, repairing a car… these are all processes that take some form of energy (e.g. human effort) to activate or complete a series of integrated events in order to create positive value at the end of the sequence. The practical universe for humans (Earth) gets all its energy from the sun and the celestial motion of the planet. That energy is constantly absorbed by various entities (plants, solar panels, water, etc.) and starts motion in our lives. Everything that lives and moves is trying to take this energy and transform it into more and more value over time.
This is another way to restate the theory of evolution: processes that produce negative value don’t persist through time. Process is always getting more efficient at value creation because energy tends to concentrate where more value is created, while other less efficient processes are weakening or ceasing to exist all together. Whether in the animal kingdom, society, or business, survival of the fittest is the eternal competition to determine whose process is better at transforming energy into positive value.
The Three Layers of Process
The above is an explanation for the formal definition of process. However, if you want to understand the full nature of “process,” there is another important concept to be aware of.
Within every process there exist three layers:
- The physical, or “workflow” layer: explains what is actually happening in the physical environment to enable an intended process design (layer 2)
- The “design” layer: explains in theory how a process intends to create the value identified in the value chain (layer 3)
- The “value chain” layer: explains why a process should exist at all, describing only the value creation that the market or environment demands
In order to optimize and improve a given process, you must first be able to identify all three of these distinct layers and understand how they relate to one another.
In my next blog post, I’ll be discussing the three layers of process in greater depth. We’ll cover the full definitions of each, the relationship between them and how to figure out what each layer is in practical terms.
Now it’s your turn to jump into the discussion. How do you define process? Share your thoughts and definitions in the comments!