Sep 18, 2017 by Emily Diffenderfer Strategy

Basics: Process Management

Thanks to MailChimp’s partnership with Goizueta Business School at Emory University, our Learning and Development team was able to borrow Professor Steve Walton to help a few staff members learn the basics of process management. I joined 7 colleagues in the course, and each of us brought a different process to the room in hopes of making it better.

Over 5 months, Steve explained how to define, measure, and improve a business process using a combination of tools from Six Sigma and lean manufacturing. He shared examples from his research and work with companies like Delta and Home Depot.

We learned what a basic process is.

A process is any series of activities that has inputs and outputs, and consumes resources.

And we considered important questions about the processes we wanted to improve.

  • What activities are completed in your process?
  • Who is responsible for each task?
  • What drives quality for the customer?
  • What causes errors? And so on.

There were also loads of charts and graphs. 💯

For the Technical Content team, I started the course with the idea to look at our editorial process—essentially, how we brainstorm new ideas, assign tasks, and then draft and publish knowledge base articles.

Look for alignment

The first thing we learned in class is that processes, like lots of other things at work, rely on alignment. That is, every process you participate in should contribute to a larger process, and so on, until you reach your organization’s core processes.

When you check for alignment, you unearth a lot of assumptions.

Puppy digging in sand at the beach.

To give myself this context, I started at the top of MailChimp and worked my way down. Turns out, “all the editorial stuff” isn’t really the process my team works on, even though it’s an easy way to compartmentalize the work we do. After the first class, my process shifted from the general “all the editorial stuff” idea to this:

Turn users into marketing communications experts and MailChimp advocates.

Break that down into supporting activities and you might think of things like these.

  • Identify user goals
  • Develop supporting resources
  • Serve content effectively
  • Encourage meaningful interactions
  • Facilitate user conversations
  • Establish feedback loops

My initial process idea looked at only one of these!

Each of these sub-processes touches a different team and has its own inputs and outputs, but they’re all related to something important. This simple exercise shifted my thinking in 2 big ways.

What I used to think

Our team is insular; we manage our own stuff.

Our process matters only to our team.

What I realized

We perform part of a much larger, company-wide process.

Users benefit from our output. Changes to our process can affect users.

Question everything

From here, we considered more and more questions. Who are our stakeholders? How do our teams work together? Where do we align or overlap activities? Where are the ‘right’ places to focus resources? Where do things go wrong? How do we measure all this?

A true process cuts across time and teams. You have to identify and evaluate a ton of moving parts. Starting with alignment gave me the necessary perspective to identify what the Technical Content team is doing—and tangentially (or more important, IMO), what we could be doing.

Kermit The Frog furiously typing on a typewriter.

It’s really easy to get in the weeds of what you do all day. You focus solely on what you do, and the way you’ve always done it. Our team has some great processes in place already, and we get a lot of work done.


In an anecdote from Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter Faster Better, he talked about General Electric’s hyperfocus on the necessity of SMART goals for every employee.

Workers spent hours making sure their objectives satisfied every SMART criterion, but spent much less time making sure the goals were worth pursuing in the first place.

Have we been doing the same thing?

Like many teams who create content, we focus so much on generating certain types of documents, following established patterns, and using shared systems, that we don’t often step back and ask if the work we’re doing is the right work. Does it benefit the user the way we want? Are we missing opportunities to maximize the volume or quality of our output?

Now that we have a passel of questions, we can start breaking them down into research opportunities and experiments. Then, we can look at real measurements and begin to analyze whether any changes we make internally affect the user on the other side.

I’m new to this, so I still have loads more to uncover. But for now, I have a basic understanding of why process management and improvement can be so critical to routine activities, as well as some ideas for improvements and ways to measure their impact. And that’s a fine place to start!