Monday, August 14, 2006

Defining a process

Introduction
A part of the Quality Management System is the definition of the quality process. The quality process is a set of process put together according to which software is developed and managed. It is very important to understand what is a process and how does one go about defining a process. In the first part of this document define s what a process is and goes into detail what the various constituents of a process are and subsequently a template for a process definition is given.

Definition
A process defines how trained resources using a set of tools and procedures convert one or more inputs into one or more outputs. The following diagram shows the interaction of the various elements of the process. It is important that all the constituents of the processes be looked into and defined very clearly.

What would happen if we did not pay attention to any one component ? Let us say that in an organization there are very talented well trained people using the best tools the industry has to offer and gets the highest quality inputs but does not follow any procedures. In such an organization there is no guarantee that the outputs would be of a standard consistent with what is needed and there is very little scope of improving or correcting the method in which the products were produced as there is no one consistent procedure followed by the people and the measurements would also not be consistent. On the other hand let us say that the organization has the best tools the industry has to offer and very well defined procedures and Inputs of the highest quality but does not have trained resources. Even then the outputs will not be of the highest quality as the resources will not know how to use the procedures or to use the technology to convert the quality inputs into quality outputs. Similarly if the tools or the inputs are not good the quality of the output would suffer.

Constituents of a process
We will now see in detail each of the elements of a process.

Scope
The outline that connects the people, procedure and the tools defines the scope of the process. The scope details where, when and by whom the process is to be used.

People
The process definition should very clearly outline

  1. The roles and responsibilities of the people that are to carry out the process. The definition of the roles and responsibilities brings about a sense of ownership and accountability in the people that are carrying out the process.
  2. The training and skills required by the people that are to carry out the process.

Tools
Tools are all the instruments and software needed to carry out the process in an adequate manner. Tools are of two types

  1. Procedural Tools. Procedural tools are those tools that help u carry out the procedure such as templates, checklists, etc.
  2. Technical Tools - This constitutes software, 3rd party libraries, Commercial off the shelf products, etc.

Procedures
The procedure consists of a step by step solution to the problem. This consists of a set of very clearly defined distinct steps that teach the trained resources how to use the tools that are to be used to convert the inputs into the outputs.

Inputs
The inputs are the artifacts that need to be worked on to produce the output.
OutputsThe outcome of the process is the output.

Measurements
Metrics collected which carrying out the process to measure the efficiency of the process and also to give us a clear insight into the status of the tasks being carried out in the process. Some of the reasons for collecting measurements are that they can be used to study the process to see the efficiency of the process and to also try and improve the process.

Control Mechanisms
Control mechanisms are the checks and balances that are in place to ensure that the process is being carried out as defined.

Template for a process
A typical process definition consists of the following titles

  1. Introduction - In this section one can give an overview of the process being defined. It should be a one or two sentence outline of what is being defined.
  2. Scope
  3. Roles and Responsibilities
  4. Training
  5. Tools
  6. Control Mechanisms
  7. Inputs
  8. Procedure
  9. Outputs
  10. Measurements
  11. References - Any external sources that have been referenced in this procedure.

Procedure to define a process

Now that we know what constitutes a process and what are the titles in a process definition let us try and define a process. Let us try and define a process to go from Place A to Place B.

Introduction
This Process details how one proceeds from Place A to Place B provided both the places are in the same country.

Scope
To be used by all individuals who have to undertake a journey from Place A to Place B within the same country.

Roles and Responsibilities

Role Responsibility
Individual Travel

Training
Individual -
Rules and regulations of travel
Studying a map
Use of the mode of transport

Tools
Mode of transport
Maps
Directions to go from place A to place B
Journey Checklist

Control Mechanisms
Role Responsibility
Quality Control Ensure that the checklist is completed

Inputs
Name and Location of Place A
Name and Location of Place B

Procedure
Complete journey checklist
Get go ahead from Quality Control to undertake journey
Follow directions and traffic rules and drive from Place A to Place B.

Outputs
Journey undertaken and individual has arrived at Place B.

Measurements
Journey time
Journey distance
Time lost due to traffic signals and unforeseen delays

References
Traffic rule book

Notes

  1. The points that are listed as control mechanisms should not be listed in roles and responsibilities as control mechanisms are members within and outside the process that are ensuring that the process is being carried out the way it should be.
  2. There might be an ambiguity in what constitutes inputs and references and here the individual has to take a judgment call based on the following yard stick. If the artifact is used directly by the process to produce the output then it would be an input and if the artifact is only there for reference to help the individual carry out the process or is an artifact outside this process that is talked about in the process then it would be a Reference. Artifacts can either be in the references or inputs but never in both.
  3. Procedures come in many flavors some more detailed than others - what the author of a process should keep in mind is that when defining a process it should be defined in such a manner that it can be used by the people. For example in tools the process can get more detailed and say a car instead of saying mode of transport. Saying a car would restrict this process to only those journeys taken by a car. When one is unsure what the process should be the bare minimum of the process should be defined and once the process is used it would evolve into finer details.
  4. In cases as defined above like mode of transport where there is a generalization made with intent a guideline document for the process can explain in detail about the various modes of transport and which can be used where which if put in the procedure would have meant a separate process for every mode of transport taken.
  5. Certain quality definitions may choose to have a separate process for every mode of transport and this choice is entirely unto the author of the process. One yardstick that can help to decide whether to go for separate processes or one process as was detailed above in mode of transport is that if the process varies drastically from using one mode of transport to another then there should be separate processes but if the processes of using one mode of transport to another are fairly the same then it is advisable to have one single process and the details of choosing and using the modes of transport can be detailed in the guidelines document.
  6. The more detailed the process, the more difficult it becomes to have generalities in it and this will require more processes. The more general the process the more difficult it becomes to implement by the practitioners. Hence a balance needs to be struck on the detail that a process should have. If this balance is not easy to identify it is better to err on the side of detail.

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