Process Management

How a process owner role may help break your internal silos

standard work reduces complexity

By on 11/04/2016

Most managers and employees think in reporting lines and departments. However, great customer experiences are created across silos. This article is about why and how a formal process owner role may help your company to become more customer focused.

The marketing function helps to bring in leads, the business developers in sales close them and then the account managers take over. When the customer is onboard then “production” give them what they paid for. Finally, the service or support function takes over. This customer experience may span 4-5 functions and just as many managers and front-line people. When is everybody focused on their internal area of responsibility then who looks after the customer? In reality, no one really does. This is where the process owner role can come in as the missing glue in the chain of activities that make up your customer experience.

Why a process owner role?

The process owner role originally comes from Six Sigma and Business Process Management. However, you do not need to practice either to benefit from this.

While most managers look at their own silos to ensure their teams and budgets are on track, the process owners take the horizontal view. Why does this matter? A lot of workflows through the hierarchy from senior management to frontline employees. While much of this value it is not necessarily helping to improve the quality of your customer experience. This is why you need the horizontal view that the process owner can bring. He or she can help uncover the blind spots that the hierarchical organization misses. Here are a few examples of the blind spots that a process owner may help uncover:

  • People who asked for specific information at an event weren’t passed on as lead to sales.
  • Customers who were interested in a new product weren’t passed on to sales.
  • Insights from service delivery weren’t passed on to product development and incorporated in new versions.
  • …. and the list goes on and on.

Adding a process owner role will not replace normal management but merely supplement this. Here is a summary of the differences between functional managers and process owners:

Functional ManagerProcess owner
Management Manages direct reports function or department.Indirectly manages the people that have the roles that are part of the process.
Knowledge A functional specialist who shares knowledge within their function.A generalist who understands the customer’s needs well and shares knowledge about the process.
Improvements Within the function or department. E.g. via a daily or weekly meeting in front of a whiteboard.Across functions. E.g. via regular process improvement meetings.

Why a process owner may connect the dots

To help understand why process owners (and processes, of course) are needed then think of your organization like a subway system. The stations are the functions, or departments, and where the bulk of the activity and investment is. The subway lines are what customers use to go from a to b and derive value from your organization. If they travel in circles or don’t take the most efficient route then they get tired, annoyed – and they take up space for other customers.

Connecting the dots of Copenhagen's metro

If you have no processes then you have to rely on functional managers to hold the customer’s hand and guide him to the next station. If you have processes but no process managers then you don’t know if your network is performing well and if customer’s get lost along the way. This is why the process owner role can be critical.

“Process owners can travel your organization just like customers and help to uncover and remove bottlenecks.”

The process owner role description

So what does the process owner’s job profile look like? We have created a sample that is targeted a knowledge-intensive service organization of 50-500 employees:

Process owner responsibilities

  • Ensures that the process is connected with the company strategy.
  • Gathers input on best practices outside of the company.
  • Develops and improves an end-to-end process continuously.
  • Monitors process performance.
  • Communicates the process and its activities to the people that have roles in it (and their functional managers).

Process owner objectives

  • Process performance: That processes deliver the intended outcomes (or outputs and results).
  • Process documentation: That related maps and work instructions always reflect current work practice.

The required capabilities of a process owner

  • An excellent understanding of your target customer.
  • Generalist, rather than a specialist.
  • Strong in process improvement tools such as process mapping, 5 Whys, A3 and 5S.
  • Good communication skills.

For a more in-depth view of the process owner role take a look at this process owner white paper from Bain.

Who should we give the process owner role to?

With this profile in mind who should then get the job? Ideally, you should find an internal process owner candidate with the following characteristics:

  • Has worked in more functions in your industry.
    This makes it easier to have a real cross-functional perspective.
  • Has worked in more companies.
    This helps ensure that he/she is open to finding best practices from elsewhere and avoid the Not Invented Here syndrome.
  • Is an informal leader.
    He or she has a lot of ideas and is respected as an informal leader. This may be a chance to reward this.

Ideally, the candidate can devote 50% of his/her work hours to the role as process owner. The 50% can be further split into 35% on process improvement by facilitating and communicating the process to the people who have roles in the process. The last 15% is for documenting and optimizing the common work instructions and connections to systems.

A final word of caution

If your process owners do their jobs well then you’ll see the processes becoming more visible and transparent. This may cause conflict with functional managers and may lead to other blind spots – just think about the joke about the drunken Irishman looking for his wallet under a streetlight and complaining that he can’t find it. “So where did you lose it?” asks a passerby, and the Irishman points far away. “So why are you looking here then?” queries the Samaritan, to which the Irishman replies, “Because it’s the only place where there’s light”.

So to return to our subway analogy – sometimes customers need other means of transportation and they need to go to destinations outside of your service area. Be open and receptive to this.

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