The State of Process – The Process State

The State of Process – The Process State

Understand procedure, understand war
Understand rules, regulations

– Forever Failure, Draconian Time album, Paradise Lost

Consider a few straws in the wind

– The National Trust plans to spend £250,000 on a footbridge a dozen feet long.
– “ is estimated that social workers spend between 12% and 20% of their time working directly with children and families, the remainder being spend on administrative tasks”
Prosecutions based on computer algorithm. Despite the results being self evidently insane, the prosecutions were expanded.

Aside from making a decent person howl, perhaps the strangest thing is the fact that we accept this as normal. But what is a common theme? In each case we are looking at elaborate processes. Designed to remove human judgement – “if we simply add enough steps, enough forms, enough certifications, enough reports to cover up the fact we know nothing, then we will achieve perfection.”

These are attempts build judgement free rule sets – where morality, compassion or discretion is not necessary. Ever more complex laws, ever more complex regulations, each layer trying to fix the problems and instabilities of the last. More Process, until we beat reality. This mentality is encountered everywhere – both in the public sector and private.

These attempts are doomed to fail, and carry high costs to society around them. The only things wrong with trying to run everything from a rigid, infinitely detail process are – it’s wrong, immoral and stupid.


The entire natural world is a non-linear system. It appears chaotic, but with layers of apparent order, depending on the scale. So we can predict the climate, but not the weather in a month’s time. This goes for Humans as well – and most of our works. This in turn means that a rigid system of rules, applied without exceptions to human endeavours, will fail. This is a mathematical certainty.

Hence the ever tighter grip of systems with totalitarian aspirations – try ing to crush those pesky humans into Perfect Order. And this is why totalitarian systems always fail.


These processes are often used to try and replace morality in decision makers – the moral code is supposed to be encoded in the process.

In the recent Post Office scandal, numerous witnesses at the enquiry seem confused by the idea that they had any moral responsibility beyond following the process.

Morality cannot be mechanised.


It doesn’t work. It leads to ever expanding costs and timescales – with each failure more process is added. “But more paperwork will make it better”. No, it won’t – the end results are still failure. Victoria/Camperdown, Grenfell, DTD683, RAAC concrete, Boeing 737… all had elaborate processes in place. In each case the elaborate processes did more than just fail to prevent the disasters. They helped create them

Process is vital. But it is a means to an end. Not the end itself.

Process – why does it seem to be getting worse?

In the past, process was often as elaborate as it could be made in the age of paper. It created problems enough – some outlined below. But there was a limit to the size of file the most downtrodden clerks could carry.

Computers offered the opportunity to stack the paper higher and higher. We now live in the age when an enquiry finding a million documents to play with is quite normal.

I am, personally, currently destroying “process” – making processes simpler, more self evident and shorter – using IT. It’s what you *do* with the tool, that matters.

Process instead of knowledge

Often, if the decision makers have no domain knowledge, they seem to believe that somehow, building a castle out of boxes of paper will protect them from the nasty knowledge. That the knowledge can be encoded in the process by others (who can then be discarded), and all they will need to do is drive The Process.

This is how Boeing became the company that couldn’t build planes. It is how BP became the oil company that didn’t know about oil production. The DfE became the department that knows next to nothing about education.

Process as a shield

Often, process becomes a hiding place for the incompetent, a shield to the immoral.

– The Post Office scandal and the Dutch benefits scandal both attempted to bury the truth in a mass of paperwork which showed everyone was just doing their jobs. Process was used to hound whistleblowers and obfuscate
– In the Lucy Letby case, managers used the elaborate HR processes as a weapon against whistleblowers. This is a common practise in the Police and the NHS.

Time after time, the enquiries into disasters finds vast amounts of “evidence” – millions of pages, that no-one can ever have read. A comforting blanket of Process that buries the Goal. How many times have we heard that the Process was used as safety blanket to protect decision makers from the Reality they created? How many times “My paperwork was all in order, so it wasn’t my fault…”?

Process as a lie

– Before WWI, the shells for the main guns of the British fleet were shit. The testing process, carefully specified and detailed, actually worked out to “Keep testing until one in the batch passes”. The shells passed. The makers were happy. As were the Germans at the receiving end. The process was a lie.

– In the 1950s, the Vickers Valiant bomber was built out of DTD683 alloy. A wonderful material in many ways – light, strong. Small problem – a single crack could start autocatalytic fatigue. Sorry to those who fell asleep – a single tiny crack could rapidly turn a piece of DTD683 into the structural equivalent of cheese. Whoops. The aircraft was important. Vital. So a bullshit process was forced through to claim that a Valiant had x number of hours of life before it would fall apart. A process. There was a tiny flaw. It was made up. No actual facts involved – there was nearly no way to gauge how long a piece of the metal was good for. One example fell apart as it was removed from a storage shelf where it had lived since being made.

– A similar thing was done with RAAC concrete. Too much had been used. Too much public money invested. So a process was invented (without evidence) to give RAAC buildings more life.

– The cladding for insulating apartment buildings passed the process(es) for checking for fire resistance. The process was a lie – and even then it was fiddled.

– The Comet airliner didn’t really crash because of square windows. One of the many actual problems was that the holes for the rivets were punched and not drilled out. When you punch a hole through metal, the result is nasty – cracks and strained metal. Great for starting a fracture on a larger scale. The technique (already established at the time of the Comet) was to drill out the punched hole, and polish it with a reaming tool. This takes a lot of effort – *someone* amended the process to remove this. So the Comets were carefully built according to the very, very detailed instructions. Cracking, eh?

– In the recent Boeing 737 scandal, the bolts holding the door on were left off. There were *two* elaborate processes to register everything done on the aircraft. One registered defects in official terms. the other an internal Boeing “quality” process. Boeing was (and is) delivering badly built planes. By hiding problems in the second, internal process, it could make the issues look less bad – internal quality control rather than defects. In the gap between the two processes, someone forgot to bolt the door back on. Those with a sense of history think of the Battle of Kansas

Excessive process as cause of the disaster

Some will say – “You can’t have too much process and rules. What about safety, quality?”.

Much as Security Theatre reduces security by distracting people from actual security, excessive processes distract people from actually doing the job.

– In one incident at NASA, 14 people were supposed to check the tightening of one bolt. It was tightened wrong.
– the Boeing 737 (above) involved too much process.
– In a number of accidents in domestic building in the UK, it turned out that the telephone directory sized project documents had never been read. Made ever more elaborate, the actual safety information in them was completely hidden

Process for the sake of process

– 13 years in, a quarter of a billion spent on the planning application and 100 million words. That’s got us part of the way to *starting* the Lower Thames Crossing

– In CitiBank in 2008, I watched as a manager ran round the floor shouting “What’s our exposure to Lehman?” Literally. A tower full of people didn’t know. Most of them spent all their time writing reports about reports about…. a mountain of paper that had managed to hide the truth. Within a year most were gone. We joked that it was a mad game of Jenga – whole floors of the useless vanished at a time.

Process that works

– Prioritise the actual goals.
– Technology as a tool to simplify, not complicate, jobs
– Process has its value – keep it short and sweet.
– Build human discretion into the process
– Personal accountability
– Domain skills in decision makers
– Value and train for morality. Trying to create moral perfection with a rule set is impossible. Morality requires humans.
– Human inspection of results more than check boxing.

This will cost money – real investment. Carefully spent, by domain experts. And the pain of cutting the laws and regulations down to a functional size will create much anger. Holding people accountable for their decisions will be another shibboleth.

It will take time. But it would give us more government to the pound, and government that would feel more human. More humane, even.

And no, this has nearly nothing to do with the various, childish red-tape slashing attempts of various politicians. This is about a restructuring, as a progression, over time.

What might we achieve? Well, if we reduce the amount of paperwork social workers have to do by a quarter, we might *double* the time they spend actually doing social work.

We might be able to afford a couple of footbridges, as well.


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