Functions vs. Processes – what’s the difference and do I really need to document my processes?

On the job we are often confronted with complex business problems and are asked to prepare solutions for implementation.  Focusing on functions when we should be focusing on processes may result in wasted time and effort (and vice versa). 

What’s the difference?

According to ITIL V3 a business process is defined as: “A structured set of activities designed to accomplish a specific objective. A process takes one or more defined inputs and turns them into defined outputs.”

According to Business Dictionary a business function is defined as: “An action performed by a device, department, or person that produces a result. A function remains more or less fixed whereas the purpose (which indicates intention or objective) generally changes.“

The difference lies in movement and flow.  Process implies a flow of related activities that work together to achieve an objective.  On the other hand, a function implies a discrete action that produces a result. A function may certainly be included in a process, or even be the name of a process, but at its root, it is not the same thing.

We can probably all agree that they are different, however when faced with making changes, usually under tight timelines, which type of information is more readily available?  In my experience, documented functions are literally everywhere, and documented processes are not.  Just because information is available, doesn’t mean it’s appropriate.

Why should I take the time to document my processes?

We should all take the time to document our processes because relying on available information instead of taking the extra time to create the right information leads to workarounds and lost time. More than ever before, time is limited, and wasting time is costly (in terms of $ and morale).

Besides, process information is simply lacking in the workplace. Investing in it is just a good idea. Process maps are foundational business tools that are required to define business outcomes, performance measures, work outputs, activities and inputs. That alone should be enough.

During times of change, documented processes are even more important. They are further required to effectively define a change, determine costs and impacts on operations, define requirements (business, systems, user), and understand daily work flow behaviours.

Planning changes without knowledge of the current process is something like designing a new kitchen without knowledge of the room dimensions.

Two brief scenarios for different expected outcomes are provided below to further illustrate this point.

Scenarios

1- Reduce Duplication of Effort

When roles and responsibilities are unclear, and functional rubs and gaps are apparent, completing a functional analysis RACI (Responsible Accountable Consulted Informed) exercise is definitely the best approach to take.  It clarifies responsibilities for those activities where many different people contribute to a greater or lesser extent.  It ultimately identifies who has responsibility for an output, and who has accountability for an outcome. Once identified, evidence can be used to resolve rubs and gaps and reduce the duplication of effort.

2- Improve Efficiency

When senior executives want to improve their team’s performance, and questions about waste, rework, and timeliness are swirling, completing a process analysis LEAN exercise is definitely the best approach to take. It presents the flow of work, as information and outputs move from one work step to another.  It ultimately identifies where work steps are non-value added, causing delays and breaks in the process flow. Once identified, evidence can be used to define causation and process opportunities for improvement to improve the efficiency of the process.

In Conclusion

Functions and processes both play a critical role in improving the workplace. The key lies in knowing which type of information should be leveraged to achieve your expected outcomes. If documented processes are needed, then take the time necessary to get them done.  The benefits will be both immediately realized by you and your team, and will also serve your predecessors far into the future.


Kathy Roy has implemented business transformation and change management projects in complex organizations for over two decades. She has worked with major companies, both public and private, and with numerous business sectors in both Canada and the United States. She is part of Systemscope's Strategic Business Consulting practice.


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