Process vs. Procedure

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October 16, 2019

Another slightly confusing pair of words for my occasional series on semantics – having clarified the difference between continual and continuous (a particular bugbear of mine!) and certification and accreditation, I thought I’d tackle process v.s procedure this time.

Standard definitions of these words are provided by ISO 9000:2015 - note that this is different to ISO 9001! ISO 9000 provides the fundamentals and vocabulary for quality management systems and is a useful document if you are interested in definitions and semantics (I appreciate that not everybody is…)

Process = “set of interrelated or interacting activities that use inputs to deliver an intended result” (ISO 9000:2015 clause 3.4.1)

Procedure = “specified way to carry out an activity or a process” (ISO 9000:2015 Procedure 3.4.5)

As is usual with ISO definitions I think they raise more questions than answers – especially when you go on to read Notes 1 – 5 underneath the definition of process, which includes the phrase “Note 2 to entry: Inputs to a process are generally the outputs of other processes and outputs of a process are generally the inputs to other processes” which does make sense once you have read it a few times…

I always think of a ‘process’ being an end to end activity whereas a ‘procedure’ is the specified way to carry out either the whole process or a certain stage of it. I’ve chosen to illustrate this blog post with some Star Wars Lego partially because everybody loves Star Wars Lego but also because Lego building uses inputs, activity / process and outputs as per the diagram below. Lego is also well known for providing clear and concise, purely visual instructions which can be readily understood all over the world – i.e. the procedure to accompany the building process.

Lego Star Wars figures being used to demonstrate process vs procedure
A rather unusual representation of process vs procedure using Start Wars Lego! R2-D2 and C-3PO have escaped from the Tantive IV and have crash landed on Tatooine, R2-D2 is carrying the plans of the Death Star and must evade capture from the Dewback riding Storm Trooper…
Diagram detailing the processes involved in the procedure of creating a lego kit

Procedures are usually documented (but don’t have to be) and may be called a variety of things such as Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Working Instructions, Method Statements, Safe System of Work etc. They can also have different layouts and contain different information, but I would usually expect to see the following to a greater or lesser extent:

  • Hazards (these could be health and safety hazards, or ones relating to quality of the product, or potential for environmental incidents)
  • Control Measures needed to manage the hazards
  • PPE / tools / equipment required
  • Competence / knowledge required
  • Step by step instructions, preferably using photos or other visuals rather than written
  • Any measurements to be taken or tests to be carried out
  • What to do if something goes wrong

The ‘process approach’ is one of the seven Quality Management Principles which are detailed in clause 2 of ISO 9000:2015. The Process Approach is where “consistent and predictable results are achieved more effectively and efficiently when activities are understood and managed as interrelated processes that function as a coherent system” I use this approach when working with my clients to make sure that every project based activity we are doing relates to the main processes of the business (usually the ones that make the money!). I use the information gathered at the beginning of the project to draw up an overall process flow of the business, then the following can be mapped onto the process flow:

  • External parties which have an interest or influence
  • Hazards, risk assessments and control measures
  • Environmental aspects and control measures
  • Objectives, targets, KPIs
  • Customer and / or legal requirements
  • Resources (including people, competencies, machines, space etc)
  • Roles and responsibilities

This often shows up areas of the business which aren’t controlled as well as they should be, as well as historic activities which are being carried out because ‘we have always done that’ but that may no longer be relevant to achieving the business strategy or objectives. Both of these areas can then be targeted for continual improvement activities.

Process mapping also provides a useful way of capturing information and knowledge in your business which isn’t formally recorded, and this can be used for future training as well as succession planning.

Have you ever mapped out the key processes in your business or organisation? What were the results, and did you identify some areas which need improvement? If you’d like to find out more about the Process Approach and how it can help to improve the efficiency of your business, please contact me.

2 comments on “Process vs. Procedure”

    1. Thanks for reading the post and leaving a comment Steve!

      Sorry not to see you in Plymouth last week but good to meet some other members of the Gabbutt tribe - pleased we had a successful outcome - another blog post will be along shortly!

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