The Way of the (Process) Ninja

A terrible headline, I apologise, but now I have your full attention…

1.  Find inner clarity

All processes do things, they have a purpose, a raison d’être.  That might be to mend broken arms or to let people know how much tax they owe.

But people are rarely clear what that purpose is:

  • Are they trying to solve a customer query or cross sell a product?
  • Are they trying to make cars or keep a factory running efficiently?
  • Are they trying to train people in process improvement or fix some processes?

Because they are not crystal clear what their purpose is then their processes will become confused, convoluted slow and expensive.

To be a Ninja clarify what that purpose is and design your process around it.

Find inner clarity.

2.  Strike at the gaps

We can all optimise and improve performance, that is no great skill, the problem is that we optimise around the wrong thing, we optimise around ourselves.

  • We build “centres of excellence
  • We engage in internal turf wars
  • We stock pile to make ourselves look efficient

It is in our nature to improve our own position and performance but that isn’t process improvement.

People point optimise around themselves and mess up the process for everyone else.

To be a Ninja look at the hand-offs between people and departments.

Strike at the gaps.

3.  Drink tea

We love to get into a good fight.  How often have you…

I do it all the time.

I am so good at it that I once received the feedback that I “use e-mail like a machine gun”.

It might have made me feel better, I might even have won the battle but I only make any progress when I sit down and talk to my customers and understand  them.

This is always best done over a cup of tea.

Ninjas listen to people.

Drink tea.

4.  Expect the worst

Processes rely on people to work them, often technically skilled people.

  • People who can understand the legalities of insurance policies
  • People who know how to spot a heart attack
  • People who can fix your PC from the end of a phone 5,000 miles away

You can make a choice when relying on other people:

  1. Expect them to do the right thing at the right time all of the time
  2. Expect them to make mistakes, they are human

We all pride ourselves on employing the best, most gifted capable people in the world.  We might even be right, but there is a reason why Steve Jobs died a very very rich man.

It wasn’t because the iPhone is tricky to use.

A Ninja realises people are not infallible so spends time making processes simple.

Expect the worst.

5.  Do the unexpected

Anybody with any sense will tell you to manage the process, not the people.  The minute you start to “performance manage” your people is the minute you start to drive a whole host of defensive and unhelpful behaviours.

So the logic is if you focus on improving the process, not the people you will get far better results.

But that is folly.

No process operates in a vacuüm.  Processes and people are inextricably interlinked.  So manage the people:

  • Provide feedback on performance
  • Discuss ways to improve it
  • Tolerate failures and learn from them
  • Give them the tools to improve their processes
  • Accept where things are not right and work as a team to fix them

Just be clear that allocating blame, targets and incentives is not managing people.  It is simply creating fear.

Ninjas manage the people to manage the process.

Do the unexpected

The biggest secret of all

What a process Ninja really knows is that process improvement isn’t about tools, techniques, data and charts. Process improvement is simply about people.

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Process Ninja

Read another opinion

Image by Seth W


  1. All good common sense and very like my own thinking! It’s not that hard to be a ninja – start with the customer need and work back from there – eliminate as much as you can, optimise customer interactions, reduce handoffs & challenge business rules. These are the way of the ninja – and there may be many ninjas but I am THE process ninja

    • James Lawther says:

      Far be it for me to challenge your title

      I hope you are busy nurturing “grass hoppers” (showing my age)

      Thanks very much for the comment

  2. Enjoyed the post!

    You are painfully honest in your introspection. I can be as well but it is so much easier to find fault elsewhere…

    • James Lawther says:

      I have plenty of faults Kurt, finding them is as easy as walking in the park, doing something about them…. well that is a different matter

      Thanks very much for your comment

  3. Hello James

    I love this post of yours – it shows up for me as being filled with wisdom. There is one paragraph that particularly speaks to me:

    “What a process Ninja really knows is that process improvement isn’t about tools, techniques, data and charts. Process improvement is simply about people.”

    I have a question for you, which comes first the people or the process? Put differently, do the people in the business serve the process or is the process designed to serve the people?

    If you ‘design’ the organisation such the people serve processes then you need to have someone in the organisation overseeing this to make sure that the people are serving the process. And along with that goes violence, domination, threat and fear.

    Or you can setup an organisational design where the people design-implement-monitor-improve the processes. Where the people see processes as useful tools. What kind of tools? The kind of tools that contribute to the lives of these people including helping them do their job better. In this organisational design you hold people accountable for the results that they generate and encourage them to come up with the right means to generate the desired results.

    What do you say?


    • James Lawther says:

      Lovely thought Maz. I think it is a very thin line between wisdom and stupidity. Maybe which side of it you stand determines your Ninja status


  4. Hi James,
    I think your first point is the most important one. If we don’t have sight of or lose sight of why and what we are doing (the purpose) then are in danger of creating a lot of activity for activities sake.

    I wonder how much process improvement work really understands its purpose? And, if we eliminated all of the process improvement work that is being done for the sake of itself, how much time and effort would we save?


    • James Lawther says:

      I couldn’t agree more Adrian and I would also ask the same question of Marketing, Human Resources, Auditing and and and…

      Purpose is often sadly lacking

  5. This was an excellent, to the point article! I am stuck in a customer service office right now and it is so NOT customer oriented it drives me crazy. I have been sitting back, drinking tea (literally and figuratively) to observe and am slowing making suggestions to gently turn them around. Funny you mention that. I had someone suggest it to me years ago that more gets accomplished over a 15 min cup of tea then in a 2 hours meeting. Taking time to get the cups, heat the water, brew the tea wait for it to cool, is a great time to chat in a relaxing, non-confrontational environment to really listen to the issue. Even if they don’t drink tea, you take the time to pour them a soda or water while your tea is cooling. Still gives you the same amount of time.


  1. […] da equipe. Não existe um processo universal para gerenciar processos, mas lendo o blog do James Lawther, encontrei 5 dicas para te ajudar a ser um “Ninja do gerenciamento de […]

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