Every year Gartner conducts a survey within the CIO community and 57% of the 1527 CIOs surveyed in the year 2008 identified "improving business processes" as one of the top five business expectations. In fact, it has been the No. 1 business expectation of IT since the introduction of the CIO Agenda survey in 2005. Process engineers in an organization are the torch bearers of process improvement initiatives. Therefore, it is very important for companies to find, nurture, and support true process engineers. It's not that easy to identify true process engineers among us. They do not wear green uniforms or have name tags that say "My Name is: Process Engineer". They blend in with the rest of us silently. That is why, I have been thinking about the best way to answer, who is a true process engineer?;

Let me start with a hypothetical example.

The building is on fire and this is the fifth time it happened during the last two years. If it is not for that most efficient Fire Fighter, who knows how many of us would be still alive and working? This Fire Fighter is typically an impressive, energetic, and truly professional guy. He arrives with equipment, jumps right in, and saves the day each time. He has so much job satisfaction and gains instant gratification from his work. We all appreciate him because life without him would be a disaster. He arrives, fights the fire, and tells us very politely not to drop the cigars on the sofa again. He respects the fact that we are humans and we make mistakes once in a while. I always rate a Fire Fighter A or A+ at a minimum. They truly deserve that for the stress and risks they take on, if not for the pure personal characteristics such as the energy, speed, dedication to the task on hand, courage, charisma, and the focus they bring in each time they are called.

There is also the Fire Marshal, who arrives once in a while and also puts the fire out. She is not as charming or exciting as the Fire Fighter but she gets the job done. The Fire Marshal always begins by asking many questions. We can become uncomfortable while answering them. She asks things like, "why are cigars dropped on sofas so often," "why are people smoking cigars inside the building," "why does this type of sofa explode with the touch of fire," "why does the whole building catch fire every time the sofa burns," "how are people getting out of the building during these incidents," and so on. I agree that she asks some interesting questions at times, but, who has the time to answer? That is why I always give her a B- rating at best. I do feel sorry for this lady who has so much curiosity and is a great inquirer. She can probably be a great fit in a crime detection and prevention agency or something similar. I recollect a few times when we let her finish her job completely. Literally, no one recognizes her work output at the time she leaves, except for my manager who wonders after a while, "Why are the sofas not exploding these days?" He ends up crediting the whole team for this change. It's really such a warm feeling when the whole team gets the credit.

A process engineer, like the Fire Marshal is not after just fighting off the immediate fires, but is figuring out the patterns of problems, their root causes, and a roadmap for a systemic elimination of those causes. Hiring a Fire Marshal to do the Fire Fighter's job may not make any difference - they both know how to put out the fire. However, hiring a Fire Fighter to do the Fire Marshal's job may not provide exceptional results. A Fire Fighter is focused on extinguishing a single fire and usually ignores the deeper rooted problems. In fact, a Fire Fighter enjoys fighting fires and is not incented to fix the root causes leading to the fires. As ridiculous as it may sound, we do see many instances of this happening again and again.

Conclusion:

True process engineers blend into the masses but are focused on identifying the patterns of problems, their root causes and the roadmaps for systemic elimination of those causes. Unlike the other problem solvers who derive an instant gratification after solving the immediate problems at hand, process engineers dwell into approaches to analyze the problem. They work to gain a holistic perspective of the problem at-hand just as the Fire Marshal does by seeking answers to tough questions in order to drive organizations towards sustainable long-term solutions to reduce or eliminate repeating problems.