What is Process Thinking? (Updated 2020)

process thinking

Process Thinking involves focusing on the steps required to achieve a task. It is an approach to sports, business and project management that seeks to achieve efficiency by setting in place standard operating procedures. People working within the procedures or ‘processes’ need only focus on their specific tasks rather than the bigger picture.

Process Thinking vs. Systems Thinking

Process thinking is often juxtaposed to ‘systems thinking’ which involves looking at the bigger picture. While process thinkers focus on how to achieve a specific and defined goal, systems thinkers focus on how different processes impact one another.

A focus on processes intentionally ignores past and future events, such as the end goal. With a focus on the present, people are empowered to take small actions now which can move them toward larger goals that are not yet on the horizon.

The ‘systems approach’ is often the remit of upper managers or business owners. It involves looking toward the horizon and looking at how all the processes interact in order to get a holistic picture of how everything is going. Meanwhile, process approaches are used by people whose daily task is to help achieve set and contained goals that may feed into achieving big picture success in the long run.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Advantages

  • Large tasks are broken down into small and manageable pieces that can be repeated indefinitely until expertise is achieved and the tasks can be completed quickly and at ease. 
  • A focus on processes allows people to set achievable short-term goals rather than focussing too much on the bigger picture.
  • When managing a large project, processes are necessary to help the project scale. Without set processes for team members to focus on, inefficiencies will begin to occur. Communication would break down between people working at each step of a process.

Disadvantages

  • Past and future events are intentionally ignored because they cannot be controlled right now. The focus on the present can sometimes lead to ignorance of contextual issues that will be arising on the horizon.
  • A focus on processes that are repeated regularly may discourage higher-order thinking skills and cognitive skills required for solving or identifying potential problems.
  • Without a focus on the bigger picture or working ecosystem (the ‘system’), large issues may arise. For example, climate change was caused by each business focussing on their processes and efficiency. No one was using sustainable thinking by looking at the flow-on effect of their processes, which was global warming.
  • Employees buried inside processes may feel disempowered by the fact that they are asked to work repeatedly on processes without understanding the bigger picture of what they’re doing.
  • Processes need to be continually re-examined in order to identify their weaknesses or suitability.

Examples

Examples include:

  • Project Management: Project managers are required to put into place standard operating procedures (i.e. processes) for team members to follow. This provides efficiency for meeting the overall goal, but also ensures team members focus on the steps that require immediate action rather than preoccupying themselves with the big picture.
  • Factory Lines: Henry Ford revolutionized industry with processes. He encouraged staff members to focus on one thing and do it well rather than work on all things at once. Each member had one task to achieve efficiently, rather than needing to know how to do everything. This made car manufacturing much more efficient and lowered the costs of automobiles.
  • Sports: American Football coach Nick Saban used a processes approach to break down plays into small, step-by-step chunks. He helped his footballers focus over and again on how to achieve efficiency by repeating the processes involved in plays until they were very skillful at their tasks.

Final Thoughts

A process approach has many advantages. It helps achieve efficiency and ensures day-to-day small tasks can be achieved in order for longer-term goals to be realized. As enterprises grow, they need to implement processes to help scale.

However, systems approaches to thinking are also required in order to see how all processes link together and how the effect one another.

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