In the Beginning …

Identifying where a process starts and ends

by T. Dan Nelson

This article was featured in January 2016’s Best Of Back to Basics edition.

The 2015 version of ISO 9001 is expected to clarify the requirements to apply a process approach to quality management. A common question arises from those new to the process approach: "Where does a process begin and where does it end?"

This is a good question, and the answer is important. The simple answer: It doesn’t matter. As long as it’s well defined and consistent with the inputs and outputs of interacting processes, the beginnings and endings become clear. A process begins where management says it does. This goes for the end of a process as well.

Think of realization processes or core processes as being links of a chain. While the activities composing any process also may be viewed as links of a chain, the focus here is on a system of processes. Here, each link represents a real organizational business process. Imagine that this chain begins with a customer requirement and ends with the delivery of a product or service that meets the customer’s needs. It’s known as a value chain.

The chain in one organization might start with marketing or design processes followed by —or even concurrent with —a sales process. The chain in another organization might not have marketing or design processes at all and could start with a sales process. It depends on what an organization specializes in and how it is structured to operate. It also depends on how management decides to define the links and the connections between those links.

Each link on the chain connects to other links. These connections, or process interactions, are defined in terms of process inputs and outputs. Each input is a defined output from somewhere, and each output will be required at some point by a subsequent process.

A properly defined system outlines the process so the inputs and outputs of each process are clear, complete and consistent with inputs and outputs of other processes. The links of the chain should be soundly connected. If all goes well following the links, the chain culminates in a product that meets customer requirements.

When a process ends

For example, one machining company might define a receiving process as being finished when incoming materials have been verified by receiving personnel, marked with their respective job number and staged for production in the staging area. Another company might say that the receiving process is not finished until the material has been pulled from the staging area and verified by a machinist at the specific machine (instead of being verified by receiving personnel).

In the former case, the production process might be viewed as starting when a router is handed to a machinist, who goes to the staging area, finds the order’s previously verified material, and transports it to the machine. In the latter case, when the router is handed to the machinist, the material has already been transported to the specific machine having been previously verified by a machinist. Again, it doesn’t matter. By the design of the system, as long as somebody appropriately verifies incoming material before we start adding value to it, it’s OK.

Generally, as long as inputs and outputs are defined, and inputs to processes match with outputs from previous processes, and outputs from processes match with inputs to ensuing processes, the beginnings and endings of the processes have been clearly articulated.

In the end, it’s really about effectiveness. If a defined system of processes is coherent (inputs reconcile with outputs), each process is performed as planned, and following these plans produces acceptable results, the planned arrangements can be considered to be effectively implemented. Ultimately, it’s up to management, and nobody else, to decide where processes begin, end and how they interact.

T. Dan Nelson is the principal at T.D. Nelson in Denver. He earned his master’s degree in business administration from the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Excellent article, clear and concise, very helpful to articulate a quality management system of processes.
--Raul Martinez, 06-25-2020

would it be a good idea to clearly define also the job responsibilities
--Aylin N. Sener, 06-29-2015

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