Understanding How to Organize Process

Process drives the work we do. We can evaluate processes on two axis – complexity and strategy – that help us decide the best way to manage and improve the processes.

Process by Complexity and Strategy

Process complexity and dynamics are what types of tasks are involved in the process. Is it a simple, repetitive procedure with a few rules for handling cases outside of normal operation? Or is it a complex procedure with lots of decision points and special case rules? Think of this like driving somewhere. Driving to your local grocery is a simple procedure, with few possibilities of exceptions. Driving across the country has a ton of variables and dynamism to it.

While complexity can help drive the decision to automate, I strongly recommend that when thinking about it don’t ask if it can be automated, only ask what would be involved if a human were to do the job or how it is done with current technologies. Starting with the answer of automation leads to automation for automation’s sake, and that is a waste.

Dynamics is how much the process changes – some change rarely while others change rapidly to keep pace in response to changes in product or external factors (such as regulations).

Strategic importance asks about the value the process contributes to meeting requirements. Is the process a core competency, or an enabling process that needs to be accomplished to ensure that you can do something else that meets the core requirements? Needless to say, one company’s strategic process is another company’s routine process, which is why more and more we are looking at organizations as ecosystems.

Processes are in a hierarchy, and we use levels to describe the subdivision of processes. We’ve discussed the difference between process, procedure and task. At the process level we usually have the high-level process, the architecture level, which are the big things an organization does (e.g. research, manufacture, distribute), mid-level processes that are more discrete activities (e.g. perform a clinical study) to even more discrete processes (e.g. launch a study) which usually have several levels (e.g. select sites, manage TMF) to finally procedure and task.

Level of ProcessIncludesKey Ways to Address
High-Level ProcessHow key objectives are met, highly cross functionalOrganization design. System Design
Mid-level ProcessHow a specific set of departments do their major work blocksProcess Improvement
Low-level processHow individuals conduct their work in sub-blocksKnowledge management, task analysis, training
Levels of Process

To truly get to this level of understanding of process, we need to understand just what our process is, which is where tools like the SIPOC or Process Scope diagram can come in handy.

Process Scope Diagram

To understand a process we want to understand six major aspects: Output, Input, Enablers, Controls, Process Flow, People.

Complex and Complicated as Tools for Process Understanding

Simple processes usually follow a consistent, well-defined sequence of steps with clearly defined rules. Each step or task can be precisely defined, and the sequence lacks branches or exceptions.

More complicated processes involve branches and exceptions, usually draw on many rules, and tend to be slightly less defined. Complicated processes require more initiative on the part of human performers.

Complex processes are ones that require a high level of initiative and creativity from people. These processes rapidly change and evolve as time passes. Successful performance usually requires a connection to an evolving body of knowledge. They are highly creative and have a large degree of unpredictability. Most complex processes are viewed at the system level.


  • Benedict, T. et al. BPM CBOK Version 4.0: Guide to the Business Process Management Common Body of Knowledge. ABMP International, 2019.
  • Harmon, Paul. Business Process Change. Morgan Kaufmann, 2019.
  • Nuland, Y. and Duffy, G. Validating a Best Practice. Productivity Press, 2020

Process and procedure complexity

People are at the heart of any organization. They set the organization’s goals, they manage it, they deal with suppliers and customers and they work together to produce results.

We manage this by processes. Process are on a continuum by how complicated and complex they are. Simpler jobs can be reliably done by following procedure. More complex ones require the ability to analyze a situation – using established rules – and decide which of several alternative paths to follow. In even more complex cases they analyze, diagnose, design, redesign, program, plan or schedule. In some cases, they create new products, processes and new ways of being. Very complex jobs require individuals who can analyze and solve very complex problems.

These complex, knowledge driven processes get difficult to provide as work-as-prescribed. The work involves thought and creativity, and finding the right balance is a continual balancing act of knowledge management.

Complex and Complicated – Time to Break it Down

Complex and Complicated

I went and did it. I now have a song on complex and complicated. A rap anthem to a subject I hold so dear. I bought this through Fiverr from Burtonm6, who was a joy to work with.

Lyrics below

Complicated and complex

these words are not synonyms/

people often misunderstand

i can break down for you

lets begin

problems that are complicated

gotta check how they  originated/

from causes that can be addressed

piece by piece

individually distinguished/


hope that you get the idea

cause and effect is linear

when we’re dealing with complicated

there’s more so listen here

learn the difference

ah yea we got to

I’m here to help yes i got you


every input always has a proportionate output

now its time we move on to complex

lets learn what its about and how its so different

it deals with many causes that cant be distinguished

as individual

because it all intersects

and we must address as an entire system

and if you try to solve it then its not a one and done

it might require to be systematically managed

a multi-functional structure

hard to fully understand it

richly inter-related

they changes in unexpected ways

as they all interact

now lets us talk about the constraints

when its complicated

then its one structure

one function

due to their environment

being delimited

no fronting

complex systems are open

yes thats for sure

cuz its difficult to know where they end

or where they will go

systems in place

to separate is impossible

it was difficult to see the differences

but now you know


complex and complicated

they are not the same

time to break it down so that you can understand

helps  decision making

when you’re analytical

whether complicated or complex

now you know


Quality Book Shelf – It’s Not Complicated

It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business by Rick Nason

Nason states at the beginning of the book: “Engineers, scientists, and ecologists have been thinking in terms of complexity for fifty years, and it is time that the business community considered some of the valuable and interesting lessons the field has to offer.”

This book is a great introduction to the concept of complexity, and I think it should be required reading.

Complexity generally occurs whenever and wherever there are human interactions.” 

“It is thinking, creativity, and risk taking that lead to sustainable competitive advantage.” 

Over-reliance on data can be dangerous, and Nason goes into detail on how US Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara disastrously managed the Vietnam War with spreadsheets: “You cannot collect data on things that are unknown … even if the factors are known, the precision needed for the data to be useful for a complex problem would not be achievable.”

None of us are as smart as all of us, and nature trumps us all. Nason refers to Orgel’s Second Rule that, “evolution is smarter than you are and that events in the business [human] world turn out to be more creative and clever than the best minds can imagine.” In addition, serendipity plays a critical role: “Complicated systems allow us the illusion that luck or serendipity played at best a limited role in our success and thus, that whatever success we have is almost exclusively the result of our own skills and effort.”

I could basically cut-and-paste quotes all day.

As someone who feels we overuse complicated and complex as synonyms, I recommend this book to all as a way to get familiar with the core concepts. I sort of wish he would write the companion volume, “No, that’s not complex.”

Complex Problems, a rant

Inevitably you will sit in on a meeting and hear someone say “We need to find the root cause of this complex problem.”

If you are me, you possibly think one of two things:

  1. Complex problems don’t have root causes. In fact, they don’t even have clear cause-effect paths
  2. That’s not complex. It’s complicated.

Occasionally, I think both.

In my post “The difference between complex and complicated” I went into detail on the differences between the two.

Does it matter? Mostly not, but sometimes very much so. The approach you bring to the two can be very different, and if you think you are tackling the wrong type of problem you could spend some time banging against a wall.

For an example:

  • Wanting to reduce cycle time for release of product is a complicated problem. You can reduce the problems and solve for them (e.g. tackle deviation cycle time, specific areas of deviations, processing in the lab, capacity in the value stream, etc)
  • Ensuring a robust and resilient supply chain is a complex problem. This problem is multifunctional and the system is open.

It is for this reason I continue to use Art Smalley’s Four Types of Problems. This gives a nice setup of language for talking about problems in the organization.

We definitely need a School-House-Rock style song for this, or good rap.