March 2008

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the abstract concept of a “process.” Michael Pollan lambastes “edible food-like substances” for being processed; at work we created a process to prepare, coordinate, and execute test scripts, which are in themselves a process; Tim Ferriss talks about processing his inbox (or creating rules - a process, essentially - so that someone who knows nothing about him apart from the instructions is able to do it for him); and most recently, Atul Gawande ruminates on how mundane processes such as proper hand-washing are the key to eradicating infectious diseases in hospitals, and how wide-spread, well-planned, and coordinated processes can effectively prevent a polio outbreak.

So what’s in a process? And why do we come up with them? The major attraction of a good process is that it is repeatable and will produce the same, desirable results each time. In other words: think carefully about it just once, and you’ll never have to think about it again, and neither will anyone else. We are now free to think about other, presumably more important, things in your life.

A noble cause, for sure. But this line of thinking is what leads to Wal-Marts, four-lane causeways, automated call centers, and fast food. Taken to the extreme, the results are unpleasant to say the least. Henry David Thoreau went into the woods as a reaction to what he saw as the industrialization of everything, including men’s souls. I can’t find the quote online (I’ll have to find the book instead), but Thoreau writes about a person becoming simply a cog in the great industrial machine - and this is in 1854. Some things don’t change.

I first read “Walden” in 2001, and again in 2004, while in the woods in Vermont, which can give any book, but particularly this one, new meaning. The book and Thoreau’s thinking is deeply ingrained and intertwined with my own; this may explain a realization that I came to recently, though probably not for the first time: I am not very good at following a process. When I am the executor, I have terrible attention to detail, I question every step, ignore things that are crucial, get hung up on things that are not, and generally just make a mess of the entire situation.

I would like to think that I am far better at designing a process, ensuring that the desired results are achieved, that the process works in all situations, and so on.

I don’t think that this makes me unique though - after all, who wants to be the sucker sitting there manually reading through Tim Ferriss’ emails or doing something else repetitive and boring, according to preset rules. No one! It’s mind-numbing and soul-sucking.

So should the end goal of process design include the assumption that eventually, no one is going to be willing to be paid a pittance to follow a process? That we’ll all have better things to do? I’m not sure. It seems that as long as there are young people still trying to figure the world out and make a little cash, or (comparatively) poorer or less skilled people who are willing to sacrifice mental stimulation in exchange for making a living (for now, anyway, to quote Avenue Q), that it’s a safe assumption to make that a well-engineered process will always have takers at some price point.