Process Rigidity Leads to Entropy

June 26, 2012 by  Filed under: Management 

Process rigidity can be catastrophic for businesses, especially considering the rapid pace at which the business environment is changing in the 21st century. Organizations need processes that can be flexible, that can adapt with the times, that can be molded to fit with advancing technologies, and that can readily handle a growth or reduction in staff or the outsourcing of business components for competitive advantage. Companies need to innovate on an ongoing basis in order to keep or outpace competitors. This is as true of business processes as it is for other elements of the firm, such as IT, or business development. Everything needs to be aligned for the business to succeed. If the organization’s processes are not aligned with its initiatives, then the business will suffer.

The term ‘entropy’ is originally derived from the second law of thermodynamics, a branch of physical science dealing with the transference of heat within a closed system. It is loosely associated with the amount of disorder or chaos in a thermodynamic system. Entropy, as it relates to processes, is the breakdown of the process due to rigidity or failure to adapt to keep pace with its changing environment. In other words, it is the measure of the level of disorder in a closed process. If a process is not taking input from its changing environment, then it is considered a closed system.

Any good process can suffer from entropy and go bad if the process is not flexible enough to keep up with change. As an analogy, suppose you buy a brand new sports car that runs extremely well and sounds great when you drive it. You then decide that the sports car is too nice to drive around because it might get damaged. So, you make the decision to put the sports car in a storage garage, cover it up to protect its nice paint job, and don’t drive it for the next ten years. After ten years, you uncover the car and try to start it, but to your surprise, the car does not start. You finally get it started and as soon as you try to drive it, the engine blows out completely.

What happened? The car was in immaculate condition when you stored it away ten years earlier. Like the human body, cars need to be exercised (or in this case started and driven) from time to time to keep them in good shape. Since the car was not driven, or even started for ten years, entropy set in and the car failed when it was finally started. Likewise, if processes never change or are too rigid, then they, too, will fall prey to entropy.

This analogy clearly demonstrates the need for keeping processes in good shape. If processes are never reviewed to ensure they are still working to support the business, chances are they are not. Just because a process was great two years ago does not mean it still is today. For that matter, in some business circumstances, even if a business process was excellent three months ago, that does not mean that it is still right for the business today. Just because a process was good once does not mean it will always be good.

This is true in all companies, but it is especially true in rapid-growth markets. For example, in a groundbreaking new technological organization launching new services during the dot-com boom, processes were being developed and changing every week. This was not because the company was disorganized or because the people were inept. It was because the business model was developing in a number of different directions very rapidly, and the rate of process change had to keep up with the company. The company was recognized for its ability to continually adapt, change, and move forward. It was later acquired by a major blue-chip organization, within which it continues to thrive today, still continuing to keep pace with its changing environment.

In some instances, managers and leaders make their processes overly bureaucratic for the sake of bureaucracy, rather than thinking through why something is being done in a certain way. Processes that are overly bureaucratic are most likely not as flexible as they could be in terms of meeting business needs. Processes should be regularly analyzed to ensure that this is not the case. Processes can be streamlined to ensure that things are being done for a reason rather than being done simply for the sake of being done. Reviewing processes on a regular basis to ensure that they have not become rigid will help to identify and implement the changes needed to ensure sustained business growth.

Dr. Milton Mattox is a senior-level business executive and technologist who has worked with some of America’s most acclaimed companies. An expert in software engineering, information technology, and quality process management, he continues to practice the process methodologies outlined in his new book, “RAIDers of the Lost Art: Reinventing the Art of Business Process Excellence,” to successfully increase return on investment. For more information, reference http://www.miltonmattox.com.

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