What is a process?

Process is the mechanism that transforms energy into value. A process (noun) is a series of events that transform energy into value. The first principle of process science states that “Energy flows through processes to create value”. The second principle states: “Anything in motion is a process”.

Introduction to process

Many people use the word process without being able to define it. This makes it hard to be consistent or even to agree on expectations for process improvement and documentation work. In process science, we use the following universal definition for the term “process”:

a series of integrated events that transform energy into value

In other words, a process is something where energy goes in, things happen and as a result, value is produced:

diagram of relationship between energy process and value
Diagram of the relationship between energy, process and value

This might sound vague, but it leads to a few key conclusions, which are stated in the first three principles of process science:

  1. Energy flows through processes to create value
  2. Anything in motion is a process
  3. If a process exists, there is value being produced

When we consider process in this way, it also becomes clear that we are continually participating in processes throughout the day. Simple activities like brushing your teeth, preparing and eating breakfast, and fueling a car are all examples of processes. A process scientist would call these personal processes, to differentiate them from business processes. 

The scientific principles of energy, process and value

We know from physics that if something is moving, some kind of energy started its motion. Eventually, that energy will either change or dissipate, ending the motion. When the motion has direction and sequence (i.e., a series of events), it is a process. This is why we say that “everything in motion is a process”. 

Processes can be large, requiring many hours or days, or simple and take fractions of seconds. They can happen once, or occur by design hundreds of times a day. Our physical existence is immersed in process. The planet we live on absorbs energy from the sun and transforms that energy into value (such as growing plants and giving us warmth). Everything that lives and moves is trying to take this energy and transform it into more and more value over time.

Even the theory of evolution is really just a statement about process principles. “Survival of the fittest” can be translated into the fourth process principle which states that “Any process that creates positive value can continue indefinitely. Any process that creates negative value cannot exist for long.” Whether in nature, society, or the business world, survival of the fittest is an inherent cycle. The flow of energy tends to get stronger where more value is being created. In processes which are less effective, however, energy flow will weaken and eventually dissipate. The “fittest” process is the one which best transforms energy into positive value. 

The three layers of process

Above we focused primarily on the relationship of process to energy and value. However, to understand process fully, you must also understand the three component layers which together make a process:

  1. The physical, or “workflow” layer: this is the activity which is actually happening in the physical environment 
  2. The “design” layer: this is how a process should be happening in theory (ideally, in order to create value)
  3. The “value chain” layer: this is the part of the process which directly creates the value

In order to optimize and improve any process, you must first be able to identify all three of these distinct layers and understand how they relate to one another. This is the foundation of the Cavi Method, process scientist Samuel Chin’s framework for understanding and improving process.

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