Sunday, 21 June 2009

Thoughts on Process Ownership

Received wisdom tells us that the role of the Process Owner is vital in any organisation, and that processes without senior management ownership will fail. Although I understand where this idea is coming from, I have some major concerns about the way that many organisations implement it.

In my experience many organisations tend to allocate process owners on an almost random basis, fail to inform them of their real roles and responsibilities, occasionally empower them with the potential to do significant damage to an organisation's process management and improvement activities, and fail to realistically monitor and measure process owners in the execution of their duties.

Before we go into details about the problems observed above, let's step backwards and think about what we mean when we talk about process owners. Traditionally the process owner is a senior manager who acts as a sponsor with respect to the process. He or she :-

  • is expected to work with the process improvement group or SEPG to ensure that appropriate process management activities are undertaken to maintain the integrity and effectiveness of the process
  • should have a good understanding of the process in question to be able to advise, coach and mentor on its usage
  • liaises with other process owners to ensure consistency across dependent processes

But the reality is often very different.

Some process owner take their roles very seriously, sometimes to the detriment of the organisation. Cases in mind are where no changes may be made to the process without the express permission of the process owner, who because of their seniority is never available to discuss changes or improvements. Similarly, these individuals take sole responsibility for education and training activities, again leading to considerable time delays in the the dispersal of the required information.

Other process owners are so far removed from the process that they are totally ineffective. Consider a senior executive owning the Software Configuration Management process but who has a background in HR. Or the Application Development Lifecycle process owner who has not been directly involved in development for 25 years.

Rather than insist on process ownership, I prefer the idea of Process Custodianship. In this environment, a group of practitioners is assigned custodianship of the process rather than direct ownership. This group should comprise of subject matter experts, process specialists, and practitioners. Time and budget is made available for these groups as part of the process management function. A senior manager is assigned to the group as a sponsor who has the responsibility for oversight of the group to ensure that they are doing their job, but who is a facilitator rather than a authority. The group itself elects a chair to act as a spokesman, liaison officer, and representative on necessary governance boards. This model provides continuity in the event of staff changes, allows staff with direct process knowledge and understanding to drive the process management activities, and ensures that multiple points of contact are in place to support the organisational requirements with respect to that process area.

As with any role, there should be a clearly defined, documented and communicated set of roles and responsibilities set out for the Process Custodian team and its members. These need to be consistent across all process groups perhaps though a charter. Measures should be put in place to monitor the activities of the team, and these measures reported at appropriate governance meetings and reviews, such as Steering Group meetings. Senior executives must be held accountable for groups they have responsibility for, and should report progress at executive operational level reviews.

Finally there needs to be a mechanism to ensure business continuity so that individuals are replaced as and when necessary, either because of attrition, or simply because staff are no longer in a position to effectively carry out their responsibilities.

This relatively simple change reduces much of the risk associated with single point of contact process ownership, allows practitioners to influence the processes they are expected to follow, and should better help to keep processes effective and under control.

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