Program versus Process
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-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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-- W. Edwards Deming, Out of the Crisis


Program versus Process - Is There a Difference? by Kevin McManus

Between the years of 1985 and 1990, I was serving as a team trainer and facilitator for a roofing manufacturer. I can more than once remember being corrected for using the word “program” instead of “process” to describe our company's employee involvement effort. After learning the distinction between these two terms, and learning to properly use them, I was able to enjoy the experience of watching other newcomers go through the same learning process. As I had done, they often asked “Is there really a difference?” or “Aren't you just being picky about your word selection?”

Over the past fifteen years, I have had the privilege of serving as an Examiner, Senior Examiner, or Alumni Examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Through my training, application review, and site visit experiences, I came to realize that the key word in that evaluation and feedback system is the word “process.” Baldrige winners seem to have an effective process for seemingly everything, including a process for improving each process. In fact, most Baldrige winners go as far as to say "All work is a process." Unfortunately in many organizations, people are still struggling to see the difference between the words “program” and “process.”

The keys to making this important distinction lie in job design and one's commitment to that design. For example, if you have a quality program, each employee feels like they are involved only when they participate in events that are part of the program, such as attending team meetings or collecting data. During the remainder of their work week, their job appears to be the same as it was prior to management introducing this formal program.

Some suggestion systems serve as an additional example. If the only vehicle an employee has for passing their ideas along to management is a formal suggestion system, then they will see a contradiction between the concept of employee participation that is preached and the supervisor who won't listen to what they have to say. In other words, they will only have a program.

In recent years, we have seen the fads (or processes?) of lean manufacturing and six sigma make their way into the workplace. Are these concepts really fads, or are they approaches to high performance that some companies embrace as a way of doing business while others go through the motions of putting a program in place? Do all of your employees participate (think?) lean and six sigma as a part of their job, day in and day out, or would they describe these approaches as "that program that I go to meetings and training for once in a while?"

The dictionary defines process as “a series of actions directed at obtaining a particular result.” The key word in this definition is the word “series.” In a quality program, participation is often limited to the one hour out of forty each week where one gets to actively participate in improvement efforts. In a true quality process, each interaction each day is seen as an opportunity to make a personal contribution towards improving the company in some manner.

Notice the distinction in job design that would accompany this example. In one case, the job stays basically the same, with the exception of the one meeting hour that is built into the job each week. In an effective quality process, most, if not all, of the job seems different (better) than it used to be. The employee looks at the job differently – they feel differently about it. These feelings in turn lead to commitment, instead of merely compliance.

Fads and programs go hand in hand. People have trouble committing to a program that they only infrequently participate in. They have trouble committing to a program that positively influences their work day only once in a while. Programs, like fads, come and go because lasting commitment can't be gained. Do you have a quality program or a quality process? How would the people in your organization answer this question? Does quality touch their lives in an important, meaningful way each day?

My operational definition of commitment is where one “chooses to do something regardless of what is coming back.” The opposite of commitment is compliance, where people obediently support the program, but not without the continual burden of motivating and manipulating people being placed on management. Programs last as long as management is willing to assume this burden. Processes feed on themselves because they are designed to impact each employee's job and make it better, in turn eliminating the daily headaches that make work unpleasant.

The beauty of the Baldrige criteria lies in how many processes interrelate with each other to create positive business results that pass the test of time – results that are not possible without having robust processes within each of the seven categories. Do you have a quality process or a quality program in your company? What would your fellow employees say? Is quality built into their jobs? Are they committed to quality?

Are you?

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