Does Apple Have Great Processes?

  • August 29, 2011
  • Scott

Jacob Ukelson recently said:

There was an interesting discussion on ebizQ around the question “What does enterprise tech have to learn from Steve Jobs’ success?” What made it even more interesting for me is that even though the question was asked of the process community, not one person answered “better process management” and certainly not “leveraging a BPMS”. So does that mean that even the process community doesn’t see any way to link outsize success to better process management? – or is this just a quirk related to Apple?

Two thoughts:  first, I think it is a good thing that BPM/BPMS advocates weren’t attempting to take credit for success we didn’t cause.  This doesn’t mean Apple doesn’t have good processes or differentiating process, but with all modesty, I think we have more to learn from Apple than vice versa when it comes to how to run a business process.  It isn’t enough to point at Apple’s success and declare victory for our (or someone else’s) interpretation of how they run their business – we have to tease out the correlated or causal elements and then show that they can be applied intentionally elsewhere.  Instead we should be pointing to those who are succeeding as an example to emulate, not a proof point of our approach – they’re only a proof point if they’re following our lead, rather than the other way around.

Second, I’ve actually made a connection between Apple and BPM several times over the years. I linked to the thread of articles in my ebizQ comment but I don’t blame anyone for not reading them all!

In particular, this one gets the most page views:

Jacob is wrong in saying that process isn’t what makes Apple great, but he may have a point that process is “table stakes” in the areas we usually think of it (supply chain management, manufacturing, etc.).  Apple’s differentiated processes are their processes for product design and user interface, not to mention their go-to-market decisioning process.  All the great designs in the world wouldn’t be enough if they didn’t have the supply chain process prowess to back them up. But, similarly, all the process prowess in the world isn’t enough if you don’t have the ability to design (see Dell, HP).

Moreover, Apple doesn’t just excel at process where it is obvious.  They’ve innovated with manufacturing process (aluminum casings, glass casings, etc.) that have also differentiated their profit margins and product designs.  These are process improvements – but they’re also process improvements where it really matters.

Jacob goes on to say:

It is clear that companies need to manage processes well, but that isn’t what makes a company great. I am sure Apple had some really good processes, but today those are table stakes. The real battlefield is in the realm of knowledge workers – design, user experience, innovation, customer understanding – and most of today’s process thinking and tools don’t help much there.  That is why I don’t think ignoring process as a success factor is a quirk related to Apple, it reflects what is really important for a company to be successful in today’s world. Process won’t make your company great – design, user experience, customer understanding and innovation will.

Design, by the way, is a process… So is developing a good user experience. The companies that are good at this have process around it – just ask Genentech or Frog Design, to name two. It isn’t “automation” the way most people think when you say “process” but it is a process nonetheless.  But if your focus on process doesn’t include user experience (voice of the customer) – you may find yourself non-differentiated on measures other than price.

I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from the ebizQ crowd being momentarily focused on product design, etc.  I’m sure that there’s good process behind those efforts at Apple, and it looks to me like we just take it for granted.

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  • I’ve always said that if you’re doing something useful at work it’s part of a process. Period. I also believe strongly that process is the language of business much like Java or PHP are the languages of the web. You don’t browse a website and comment: that’s some nice piece of Java or PHP right there.  Just like you won’t say: that server code must use the Singleton design pattern for it to be so fast.
    BPM is the design pattern of choice for many organizations but speaking of those organizations as being defined by BPM would be missing the point. I applaud a community that can observe and comment on the results of what undoubtedly is great management (be it of processes or people alike).

    • Well said!  I think I’ve said something similar – if it is value, and it is business… then it is probably a process 😉

  • Anonymous

    Having some intimacy with Apple’s processes I can say that Apple’s excellence _absolutely_ is linked directly to great process _management_.  Why do you think Tim Cook is now CEO?  But the point I want to make is how Apple thinks about “process”.  It’s not the automation of workflows.  In fact, many of their processes are decidedly not automated – for better or worse (Excel over email is rampant, and integrations to Oracle are as difficult and kludgy for them as anyone else).  BUT, the visibility (reporting) – some would say the micro-visibility – of the states of data (or product) flowing through a given process at a given point in time is the most I’ve seen in my career, bar none.  And Apple uses that information ruthlessly to manage its business.  People may not buy Apple’s products because of Apple’s processes, but Apple is great because of them.  Innovation is only a part of any successful business.  Scaling innovation in a sustainable business model is equally hard.  Apple has learned that the trick to scale is less about automation – although that’s table stakes, of course – and more about upward visibility and developing a culture that can adapt to decisions based on that process visibility in near real time. 

    • excellent points, @philgilbertsr:disqus – really appreciate the insight.  I think even to this day people are still too focused on the definition of BPM having to do with automation – which is really missing the point.  It is like looking at a car and thinking its purpose is to burn fuel.  

  • Jacob Ukelson

       In theory, I agree – but you think about process much differently than many BPM practioners. For them, business processes equate to processes that can be automated.

    Take design for example, there is great design which may happen as a result of a loosely defined process, or maybe just a great designer doing great things. As an aside, I am sometimes astounded by the number of great products and great companies resulting from some spark of a single person’s genius. Of course, that isn’t enough – those sparks need to then be translated into real world products.  That is where I see process coming in.

    I am not trying to belittle the process part, but without the initial spark – it would be an effective way to get mediocre products to market. My point was that nowadays process is crucial to company success, but not enough to achieve greatness. 

    • Then I feel sorry for those other BPM practitioners:)

      The difference in design by spark and design by process is scale- often the first innovation a company is built around is design-by-spark.  But for a company to have innovation at scale, there also needs to be a process around design that improves the odds of success (without stepping too heavily on ideas that don’t seem to “fit”).  Finally, for a company to be built around an innovation (or a new ecosystem around it), obviously there have to be good processes for scaling the execution of the business (as you put it, translating into real-world products). 

      I think it is fair to say that process by itself is not enough.  Almost by definition, you also need great people.