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Dark processes and the implication for your business

Blog: Process Cafe

holy smokeJim Sinur recently posted a piece which discussed Dark Processes. These are the unofficial processes used to deliver results that are not visible to management. Jim mentions that there are a number of ways Dark Processes (or Shadow Processes) come into being, these being – for example – when a variation is needed in a process that has no flex, or when an IT limitation inhibits the ability of a process to work as required or – my personal favourite – because Old Habits Die Hard. I wrote something akin to this a few years ago when talking about “The Way Its Always Been Done”.

Jim finishes up his piece by saying

“Dark processes are here to stay. Let’s not fear them, but reduce the number of opportunities to create and feed them for no good reason. Intelligent business operations allows for intelligence built into processes to reduce the need for dark processes.”

I couldn’t agree more.

What does this mean?

But lets have a look, for a moment, about what these dark processes mean for your business, shall we?

The existence of shadow process do – in themselves – indicate some sort of underlying issue that needs to be dealt with. Why is an employee having to record transaction off the books to assist a customer? Why are the finance department recording different figures for MI than are shown on the system?
Sometimes the issue is simple. In the case of Finance it could be that they are taking figures from several systems and using Excel to amalgamate and ‘pretty them up’. But sometimes there is a deeper-seated underlying reason.

I worked at one organisation that took centrally affiliated reporting criteria and ‘massaged’ the figures each month in Excel prior to submitting them to corporate for review. The reason was that they were accounting for things in a none standard way and knew that taking the figures directly from the system would show them as having sold less than they actually had. Rather than change the way they accounted for things they decided to alter the figures instead. This resulted in a shadow process which allowed them to do what they needed. The issue came to a head when I implemented a new financial system that allowed all figures to be queried centrally without the affiliate themselves doing any manipulation of the data. That particular shadow process didn’t last long.

How do you remove them?

But overall a shadow process needs to be identified and the underlying cause removed. But how do you do this?

As Jim himself says:

Intelligent business operations allows for intelligence built into processes to reduce the need for dark processes

What this means, in my opinion, is that when new processes are put in, adding a sensible amount of intelligence into the processes will reduce the scope for a dark process to appear. But this doesn’t remove the existing ones that we haven’t found yet.

Identification of a dark process is – by definition – quite difficult. If you knew the dark process existed you would try and stop it (or understand why it exists).

One solution is the one listed above: replace their process with another one and see what breaks. That’s a little radical for my liking (but very effective)

Another slightly less radical way of doing this is to put someone new into the role and ask them to report back to you with their impressions of what happens. You can compare that with what should happen (You do have documented your processes, right?) and identify the discrepancies. But this isn’t always the best thing to do. Employees get distrustful when you suddenly introduce someone new to the company, and rightfully so in this case.

No, the easiest way to identify a shadow process is to go, systematically through your existing processes and document them appropriately. That way you will understand what the employees are actually doing rather than what they think they are doing.

I facetiously asked earlier in this post “You have documented your processes, right?”. In actual fact this appears to be a key factor in understanding where dark processes occur. Get your users into a room, start to ask them what they do. Work through the details until you understand the points at which the current process breaks down. Sure, it’ll take a while, and probably cost you a fair amount of money. But compare that with the amount of money you’re losing by having the processes there in the first pace and you’ll understand the importance of doing this.


We know they’re there. We know they’re happening. Understand that they happenmand understand why they happen. If you can life with that, fair enough, go ahead and do what you do. But if you think the dark processes are costing you time and money (and they almost certainly are) then you need to start looking in detail at where they occur and trying to stop them.
It’s the only sane thing to do.

Reminder: ‘The Perfect Process Project Second Edition‘ is now available. Don’t miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you. Click this link and follow the instructions to get this book.

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