You are here:Home>Knowledge Base>What is a Process?

What is a Process?

Process Improvement — A Standard Definition of a Process

A process is a series of steps and decisions involved in the way work is completed. We may not realize it, but processes are everywhere and in every aspect of our leisure and work. A few examples of processes might include:

  •     Preparing breakfast
  •     Placing an order
  •     Developing a budget
  •     Writing a work order
  •     Triaging a patient
  •     Cleaning a room
  •     Changing oil in a car
  •     Strapping down a truck
  •     Refueling an aircraft
  •     Putting gas in the car

What is Missing from the Standard Process Definition?

what is a process help diagramA lot! Let me give an example of why the overused standard process definition won’t describe most processes and why it fails during a process improvement project. At ESPN there is a basic process for submitting a background check for a new hire. The process is described below:

The process seems straightforward with little room for error. However, hiding underneath the basic definition are key pieces of information that illuminate the problem and the process improvement solution.

Timing and Interdependency

Timing and interdependency are key to understanding real process behavior. In the background check process described above, the submitter only submitted background checks on Tuesday between 3:00 and 3:30 PM. That means that a pending background check could sit in the queue for up to 7 days before being submitted. Three other similar delays in the background check process could add 14 unnecessary days of delay. Understanding the timing of activities within a process is critical to any improvement methodology yet remains unseen because the basic definition doesn’t describe it. The basic definition of a process does not include the framework to describe when a process occurs.


Normally (no pun intended), averages are used to describe processing time for activities under study. Averages work well to describe a business process containing no variability in time (or process direction), not utilizing people and without interruptions. In other words, averages hide critical business process behavior. Why do averages mask process behavior? It would be like trying to explain the dynamics of a family from a single photograph. You get some information from a picture, but you have no clue what happened immediately before or after the click of the shutter. Variable times cause loss of throughput because the system can’t be balanced precisely. That means from the perspective of the entity; waiting will occur at various points in the process. Sometimes there is more waiting than processing. Benjamin Franklin stated this principle concisely when he said: “Lost time is never found again.” If variability in “time and direction” are ignored the real capability of a system will be hidden. Understanding the effect of the variability in the “background check process” mentioned above gave rise to new solutions that mitigated the extreme variability.

If Timing, Interdependency, and Variability are so important why are they ignored in process definitions?

Traditional tools don’t have the framework for capturing or seeing the effect of these critical process factors. Without the framework for capturing and using information, it will be ignored by almost everyone. The framework opens the eyes of the process improvement expert so that they can make effective decisions.

“If you don’t have “word” to describe something, you can’t see it. If you can’t see it, you can’t manage it.”

A New Definition for “What is a Process?”

A process consists four major elements:

  •     Steps and decisions — the flowchart. A series of steps and decisions describing the way work is completed.
  •     Variability of processing time and flow — the pattern of processing times.
  •     Timing and interdependence — when the arrivals happen, when people work, etc.
  •     Assignment of resources — how many and where are they assigned.

The expanded definition of a process describes the behavior of the current system. Using this information linked in a model, the characteristics of the system can be changed, and the key metrics tested… before investing a dime!

Would you like to see how the elements of the expanded process definition are tied together in an easy-to-understand model? See more…

About the Author:

Scott Baird has been president of ProcessModel for more than 15 years. His focus has been to teach others how to improve processes dramatically. He has been successful in transferring these skills to over 200 companies, including ESPN, NASA, GE, Nationwide, Cendant, SSA and many more. Specialties: Group facilitation for process improvement, process design and simulation, simulation modeling, business management and training others to see opportunities. Scott loves to teach process improvement and has often been heard to say, “Of all the things I do, training others to improve processes is my favorite.” Scott is a father of four and a grandfather of eight. He is an avid woodworker, designing and creating presentation boxes. In his spare time, he volunteers in a college preparation program.


  1. Erneston November 20, 2016 at 3:16 AM - Reply

    Hello, I disagree with your article. I think there is a confusion between a process and a procedure, which is the method used to execute the process. A process describes only inputs, outputs and what is expected as deliverable at the end of the transformation. The procedure describes how to use those entries i order to produce the expected outcomes. The timing problem mentioned above can be solved with a good description of the procedure.

    • Scott Baird November 21, 2016 at 9:00 AM - Reply

      Ernesto, thank you for the comment. You are correct that a “flowchart” only describes inputs, outputs and what is expected as the deliverable. A process model provides added information that you may not yet be acquainted with. A process model adds the dimension of time to the process. The dimension of time allows the understanding when things should happen. A working process model opens a new level of understanding as to how the process currently operates or may operate with changes. Once the operation of the process is understood a great procedure can be written.

      To help you see what you may be missing, I would love to provide you with a personal demonstration of process models using ProcessModel. Let me know if you are interested.

  2. Juan Crofoot January 20, 2015 at 2:54 PM - Reply

    I must agree with Jose Massaro. All four elements (the characteristics of the system) must be changed and the key metrics tested before investing on any project.

  3. Jose Massaro December 23, 2014 at 2:37 PM - Reply

    A new definition of What is a Process. I agree with all four elements. Steps and decisions, Variability of processing time and flow, Timing and interdependence, Assignment of resources.

Leave a Reply