Process vs. Procedure: Is There a Difference?

June 1, 2021 in Standard Operating Procedures

Process vs. Procedure: Is There a Difference?
Table of Contents

It’s not unusual for operations managers to use the words “process” and “procedure” interchangeably. But do they actually mean the same thing? 

Similar to other vague terminologies within industry spheres, this debate has likely been the subject of private internal dialogues for ages. 

Exactly how many experienced department heads stared at their computer screens, scratched their heads, and wondered if they were missing some critical distinction that they are—at this point—too embarrassed to ask their peers, we would never know! 

The good news is that the confusion ends today. Yes, there is a difference in meaning between process vs. procedure. And, yes, we will dive into those distinctions here. 

Keep reading to learn how these terms relate in terms of business needs, how workflows help streamline procedures, and how you can automate both your processes and procedures for increased efficiency. 

Process vs. Procedure: What Is the Difference? 

The primary difference between process and procedure is in terms of depth. 

A process simply describes a sequence of events that lead to the achievement of a particular goal. In other words, it’s an overview of the actions included within a particular task. 

Alternatively, a procedure details precise instructions on exactly how to complete a task. Procedures provide workers with clear, step-by-step guidelines for fulfilling assigned procedures. 

Another way of thinking about the difference between process and procedure is this: processes describe the “what” while procedures answer the “how.” 

Thus, broad information vs. detailed information is the most notable difference between the two words. Below is an example of how the two terms may function in practice:

Example 1: Process vs. Procedure

MaintainX provides a computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) for operational and maintenance professionals.

A CMMS is a software platform that automates maintenance scheduling, organizes asset historical data, and supports cost-effective O&M decision-making.

Our mobile and desktop applications allow users to assign technicians digital work orders (aka processes) with attached digital checklists (aka procedures). 

process vs. procedure
MaintainX Mobile CMMS

Once a technician receives notice of an assignment, he can open the work order for a quick overview of what needs to be done. The work order may include a general description, a location, and a list of parts needed, among other components. 

When the technician is ready to begin the project, he can open the work order’s attached procedure for detailed guidance on what he should do first, second, and so on. 

Still can’t get enough of process vs. procedure? We don’t blame you; we enjoy geeking out over process improvement-related topics too. For the remainder of this article, we’ll deep-dive into the nuances between the two terms.

Process Definition

As previously mentioned, processes refer to the general steps that need to be completed to achieve a particular outcome. 

However, they don’t provide details about how the task should be completed. Processes are typically made of three elements: input, procedures, and outcomes. 

The number of processes your organization has will depend on its size, industry, and goals. It’s worth emphasizing that a single process can span various departments. However, each department will engage in specific processes unique to its individual objectives. 

For example, an organization’s marketing department might collect lead information through a landing page form that is automatically relayed to the sales department’s CRM software. Both departments are involved in the process of lead generation.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the definition of “procedure.” 

Procedure Definition

Procedures refer to detailed instructions on how to complete specific tasks as part of an overarching process. 

Standard operating procedures (SOPs) outline the order in which specific steps should be followed to reach the end goal. Procedures also specify who should perform the tasks indicated. 

A series of procedures combined to produce a desired outcome generates a process. Thus, procedures can be thought of as “the building blocks,” or steps, of processes. 

Example 2: Process vs. Procedure

Steve owns seven McDonald’s franchise locations. Like many franchise owners, Steve was drawn to the franchise business model because it comes with proven processes. 

Examples of routine McDonald’s processes include taking customer orders, relaying orders to cooks, and delivering orders when ready. Of course, Steve must put effort (input) into achieving his goal to nurture steady streams of customers (outcome). 

However, Steve doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel; McDonald’s executives have spent countless hours developing trustworthy protocols (procedures) to produce dependable products. 

process vs. procedure at McDonald's

Steve uses MaintainX to write, digitize, and assign McDonald’s recommended equipment maintenance procedures. Additionally, Steve uses a corporate distribution system for training new employees and assigning procedures to workers.

This way, his store supervisors and maintenance technicians always know exactly how to complete assigned procedures. Sidebar: This is a true story! Steve saves 20 to 30 management hours per week using MaintainX to automate preventive maintenance scheduling, parts management, and more. 

Now that you understand the difference between processes and procedures, you may be wondering: how do workflow maps fit into process improvement? 

Advantages of Mapping Workflows

Workflow maps are illustrative tools created to better understand the sequence of events within a given task. Also referred to as “process diagrams,” managers sketch flowcharts to visualize the steps involved in completing processes and procedures. 

process vs. procedure

The advantages of mapping your workflows include:

  • Uncovering Hidden Bottlenecks: Every organization aims to eliminate waste and improve its processes. But it’s sometimes difficult to identify which aspects need improvement without a visual aid. Workflow mapping helps identify, isolate, and resolve problem areas so management can trim unnecessary processes’ fat. 
  • Enhancing Compliance: No matter how small the business, complex industry regulations and audit requirements can make even the simplest processes seem difficult. Again, mapping workflows can provide a visual representation of overlooked problem areas that can later result in penalty fees if left unresolved. 
  • Simplifying Employee Onboarding: Despite even the best efforts to keep employee turnover rates low, workers do move on. Workflow maps make it much easier to explain complex procedures with a higher level of detail. Workflow maps also can help when redistributing employees and assigning new tasks.
  • Enhancing Teamwork: Workflow mapping helps everyone within the organization to maintain a unified vision of goals at hand—both big and small. Furthermore, mapping helps connect everyone to SOPs, thus making them feel part of “the team.” Such camaraderie is essential to creating a company culture that excels via teamwork. 

Other benefits of workflow mapping include helping enforce best practices, reducing the need for management troubleshooting, and decreasing the likelihood of human error.  Workflow maps can be distributed either in paper format or attached to digital work orders as PDFs. 

Use Process Management Software for Work Instructions 

As we’ve shown, processes and procedures go hand-in-hand. The former provides businesses with structure, efficiency, and quality-control safeguards. While the latter details step-by-step instructions that employees can follow to produce reliable results. 

Understanding the difference between business process vs. procedure is the first step to implementing more formal continuous improvement program strategies like Lean Six Sigma. Are you ready to streamline your process improvement efforts, enhance equipment reliability, and increase profitability? If so, we invite you to download MaintainX CMMS

Our mobile-friendly process management software allows users to automate recurring work orders, customize procedural templates, and communicate with team members via instant messaging. You’ll love having a high-level view of operational activities combined with detailed reporting metrics at your fingertips. 

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