Optimizing Processes Globally

Over time every individual and group will develop patterns of behavior that they repeat regularly while they work. These patterns can be formalized as documented business processes or left undocumented, but gradually they will solidify and become patterns of behavior that are difficult to break out of. Sometimes these patterns will represent extremely efficient ways of accomplishing a task, but often they were developed ad hoc as needed and we encounter a phenomenon called Sub-Global Optimization.

What is Sub-Global Optimization

Sub Global Optimization occurs when small, discrete activities are refined without regard to how they fit into the larger scheme. This may occur when there is no overseeing authority connecting how individuals in an organization work. The disconnect between processes may lead to two individuals doing their jobs as well as they can to complete larger tasks, but the overall process for that task not reaching peak efficiency.

An Old School example

Let’s look at an example of Sub-Global Optimization at work. In a simple order processing and fulfillment operation we have three employees: Amir, Beth, and Charles. Amir is in charge of taking orders from customers, Beth is in charge of billing, and Charles delivers the products that have been ordered.

A typical paper-based order process may look like this:

  1. A customer phones Amir and asks for 3 widgets
  2. Amir writes down the customer information and product order on a carbon paper form
  3. Amir files the top copy, sends the yellow copy to Beth, and sends the red copy to Charles
  4. Beth places the yellow copy in a pending folder
  5. Charles checks and finds that there are only 2 widgets in stock
  6. Charles fills out a carbon copy back order form, staples the top copy to the original red copy of the order form, and files it in the pending folder
  7. Charles sends the yellow copy of the back order form to Amir to notify the customer
  8. Amir calls the customer to notify them that their widget is on back order and all three will be delivered when the order is ready
  9. When the third widget arrives Charles pulls the forms from the pending folder and delivers the order
  10. Charles sends the forms to Beth
  11. Beth pulls out the yellow copy of the order form from the pending folder and compares it to forms Charles sent over
  12. Beth sends the customer a bill for the 3 widgets

Amir, Beth, and Charles are all doing their job as quickly and efficiently as possible but they are not optimizing the order processes as a whole.

Improving the process

Improvement can come in the form of a better paper based process, or it can come in the form of an automated system. Both options should be explored in order to find the solution that will provide the best results and lowest overall cost. Technological solutions generally cost more to implement but tend to pay off better in increased productivity and reduced operating costs if they are well designed.

The key to improving the process, regardless of how the solution is implemented, is to look at optimizing both what each person does and how people work together. In our Old School example there are a number of places where better communication between the individuals and access to more information could help the process become more efficient.

  • Amir doesn’t know how many items are in stock until Charles checks and tells him, resulting in a second call to the customer
  • Beth receives a copy of the order but can do nothing with it until Charles has delivered the widgets, resulting in extra filing with no benefit
  • Charles is waiting until all items are in stock and to deliver them and pass on the forms to Beth for billing resulting in possibly lengthy delays in delivery of any widgets or payment for those widgets

We can go on to consider new ways of organizing the overall process to help optimize the system as a whole so that each person’s job is optimized in the context of the larger system. Correcting for Sub-Global Optimization is about placing processes in a larger context and optimizing both the individual tasks and processes and the larger system to achieve the highest productivity. By being aware of the context in which processes take place we can learn to avoid the pitfall of Sub-Global Optimization.

Kevin Hall
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