By:  E.D. Johnson, J-E-T-S

Copyright 1997, Printed in Quality Management Forum in 1997, reprinted in Gillette Company Quality Forum in 1998.   Do not reproduce without permission.

The famed architect Miles Van der Rhoe once exclaimed that "God is in the details!" In our businesses, it more often seems that the Devil is the one who’s in the details!

With the complexity and speed required of modern organizations, it is often difficult to know exactly how we do business, specifically how we operate within our organizations. Does that statement shock you or amuse you? Are you confident that you do, indeed, know how your organization does its day to day business? And, if you aren’t exactly sure about the specifics of a particular process, would you feel quite comfortable relying on your company’s operating procedures for clarification and understanding? Perhaps not? Well, many organizations face the same vulnerabilities. In the remainder of this article, we are going to explore key foundations for this vulnerability and five strategies for ensuring sound process management.

Through process reengineering, continuous process improvement, benchmarking, and other process management techniques, many organizations are attempting to achieve real, measurable improvements in their business processes. As these organizations move toward process improvement, they are frequently frustrated with their results. They have invested significantly in process analysis and design; workers are organized into motivated, self-directed teams. Procedures, processing guidelines, and other sources of process knowledge seem to be streamlined, thorough, and clearly documented. Yet, there continue to be backlogs, exception items, and general pockets of confusion and inefficiency in the workplace. What’s going wrong? The Devil’s in the Details…

As we explore this vulnerability, let’s return momentarily to the basic fundamentals of business processing. A business process is the specific group of tasks which comprise the achievement of a product or service that is of value to a customer. But, the reality of business processes is that they are comprised of all the things all workers do, all day long, every day. The Devil’s in these Details!

All workers are not equally skilled, nor do they always work in a clearly defined work unit. Employees may work on a single process or may move from process to process throughout the day. They may refer to detailed procedures, or they may have gained their job understandings from informal on-the-job training. They may follow procedures closely, or they may regard much of their work as unique or exception items. Their processing guidelines might not address the reality of the work they see, so that much work really does require exception handling. All employees working on the same process may accomplish the work in the same manner, or they may not. In fact, some employees might have been doing a job so long, they feel they do not need or trust procedures. Thus, it is folly to assume that even very good, "best practice" procedures can guarantee an effective process will be consistently executed in a quality fashion. After all, the Devil’s in the Details!

Many organizations are approaching business process improvements with an assumption that reengineered, total quality managed, continuously improved processes will provide the economies and quality/service improvements they seek. Certainly these tools, well developed and well utilized, represent a foundation for process improvement. But remember, the reality of business processes is that they are comprised of all the things all workers do, all day long, every day. What workers do all day long constitutes the details of the business processes. And managing these details is where many organizations go astray. Unfortunately, the Devil’s in the Details!

Following are five key strategies of process management that will sustain real processing excellence.

  1. Ensure Adequacy of Processing Guidelines

If workflows, procedures, or other processing guidelines are generic, too high-level, or out of date, workers have no choice but to improvise their own strategies for accomplishing a complete work process. Many times, an organization invests a great deal of resources in developing a cohesive framework of processing guidelines that could provide economies of work elimination, work simplification, and work restructuring. Then the organization loses interest or feels the pressure to move to a new area of opportunity before changes are fully implemented and understood by the workers. Remember, the Devil’s in the Details!

Examples of this situation include nation-wide procedures that do not address state-specific requirements, procedures that are out of date with respect to current processing needs, guidelines that are not compatible with current system configurations, and other real-world scenarios. Employees are left on their own to "fill in the gaps" but often lack the necessary understandings to be successful.

  1. Create Worker Understandings

The workplace of today and the future requires workers who understand the objectives of the process in which they are engaged, the relationship that process bears to the organization’s overall business and service objectives, and the role each worker plays in accomplishing the process and supporting the organizational objectives. While effective processing guidelines provide detail and direction, the workplace remains an evolving entity. Workers must clearly understand the organizational intent and surrounding environment in which they operate, so they can make decisions that support the overarching organizational objectives. And, they must also understand the consequences of failure. In many organizations, this may require a change in corporate culture or management attitude toward training and quality, a need to rely on workers to make the right adjustments. The workers are the ones closest to the process and thus the ones best able to react to evolving needs. In these cases, the Devil’s in the Details!

  1. Enable Continuous Process Improvement

Our ultimate objective is to have workers who understand the intent and direction of processing guidelines, and procedural direction that facilitates appropriate mainstream processing, while identifying and eliminating as much exception processing as possible. However, we must also remember that we operate in a dynamic world. Objectives and requirements shift continuously. Workers are expected to accomplish broad-based goals, and refine their activities as needs require. Thus, processing guidelines must also evolve, based on worker identification of opportunities for improvement combined with management insights regarding organizational direction. Process improvements are on-going; they cannot be viewed as a project which is developed and then concluded. The Devil’s in the Details!

Effective process improvements rely heavily on the workers performing the process. The workers are most familiar with the work and are in the best position to identify impediments and opportunities in the process. A continuous process improvement program that fosters direct worker participation in the refinements is going to be more auspicious, more timely, and create stronger worker ownership in the process and the organization.

  1. Identify and Reduce Exception Processing

Effective processing guidelines address the reality of an organization’s business. They provide a practical map for processing mainstream business, while allowing for identification and resolution of exception items. However, many times an organization develops processing guidelines that address the assumption of business needs (familiar mainstream processing) while ignoring the reality of the work (mainstream processing plus exception processing needs). The Devil’s in the Details! Careful scrutiny of exception items is a critical part of effective process development. In most organizations, every transaction need not be a new adventure. An organization’s objective is to identify, analyze, and minimize exception items; the identification and analysis of root cause for deviations affords a practical and realistic way to reduce the resources allotted to processing these exception items.

  1. Measure Processes

An effective process measurement system allows an organization to monitor its progress and pinpoints the specific areas where the process becomes bogged down. The areas where work moves less smoothly through the system generally indicate process details that need refining. Monitoring the flow of work to identify and minimize exceptions and bottlenecks leads to a more effective and efficient process.

Many organizations overlook the measurement component, relying instead on assumptions and "corporate feel" regarding problem sources and bases. These assumptions are frequently subject to personal biases and turf struggles. By using a simple but specific measurement system, an organization can increase the objectivity in the identification of problem areas and causes. The Devil’s in the Details!


The reality of the business operation is the reality of all the things workers do, all day long, every day. It is that reality, and the relentless attention to these details, which will drive organization results. After all, the Devil’s in the Details! Even with the current emphasis on processing improvements, it is important to remember that procedures, workflows, and other processing guidelines do not always truly reflect the way an organization operates. We cannot permit ourselves to feel comfortable solely with documented procedures and processes. Deliberate steps are needed to ensure that all levels of workers understand the requirements, intent, and consequences of work processes. Effective processes must then incorporate worker feedback, accommodate the reality of what happens at the workers’ desks, and manage that reality to achieve improved operating results.

The Devil’s in the Details! Good luck!

Note:  This article is presented for your personal use only.  Do not reproduce, revise, or distribute this article without permission of J-E-T-S! 

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