Drawing the Line Between Process and Procedure

Have you ever used the words ‘process’ and ‘procedure’ interchangeably? Well, the chances are that you may not have been wrong. This is because the differences between the concepts of process and procedure are subtle. Many veteran business process consultants second that in the normal discourse, both concepts carry similar meanings. Using them interchangeably may also not be wrong in most cases. But if we want to carve out differences between the two, we will have to delve into the specifics.

Let us start with an example to highlight the complexities involved in making distinctions between a process and a procedure. What shall we call ‘making a cup of tea’ – a process or a procedure? Both sound equally correct. There is a series or sequence of steps involved irrespective of which term we use. In this blog, we shall examine the differences between processes and procedures with inputs from SOP consultants of BPX.

Process Versus Procedure

‘Process’ is a broader term than ‘procedure’. We use it to identify broader input-output (IO) relationships. For example, we associate the term ‘process’ with payroll. Payroll comprises multiple operations. Each operation further involves activities. And then there are operational procedures for each of these activities. And in that sense, procedure is a component of process.

The term ‘process’ is used to denote complex IO relationships. When we use the term ‘process’ the input-output relationship is not simple and straightforward. Extending the example of payroll used above, when we say ‘payroll’, we comprehend it as the sum total of all the activities required to complete the salary disbursement, fulfil the associated regulatory conditions, make the necessary accounting entries, etc.

A process has lesser detailing than a procedure. Procedure boils down to the level of instructions for carrying out an operational activity. Process also does a similar thing but at a much broader level. Procedures are more specific and detailed because it caters to the level of execution. For example, in deducting applicable taxes from wages and salaries, a specific set of instructions are necessary. Here, it cannot be called a process because then the detailing would be gone. And if detailing is gone in tax calculations and deductions, it will lead to financial misrepresentation and imbalance on an enormous scale.

Processes are dependent on procedures. Executing a process involves the execution of many operations and many more operational activities. Procedures define how these activities must be executed. As experienced business process consultants, BPX maintains that if these procedures are not properly planned and defined, it puts the entire process at risk of failure. To understand this, imagine what will happen if the security manager of a shopping mall is not handed any SOP manual to operate the CCTV apparatus.

Processes have trigger points; procedures need not have any. Every process has a trigger point i.e. some event or scheduled time necessitates the initiation of a process. For instance, a payroll process is triggered on a specific date every month. This marks the beginning of the payroll process for a given month. On the other hand, a procedure need not have any such trigger point. A procedure is followed when the operational activity must be carried out. A process trigger could lead to the initiation of an operational activity which in turn could lead to the initiation of a procedure. But by its inherent nature, procedures are not bound by any triggers.

An often-ignored point in procedure versus process distinction is that processes may be known to all stakeholders but procedures are specifically for process owners or people/positions who/that are intended to carry out the concerned operational activities. For example, in availing any public sector services, citizens are made aware of the process and progress. But they need not know the SOPs being followed internally by the concerned departments.

Processes are not interlinked by default. Interlinking cannot be avoided in procedures. While we can tell in hindsight which processes are interlinked, we cannot create the required interlinking among these processes without using procedures. In the case of procedures, the interlinking among procedures cannot be dodged. This is because a procedure deals with operational execution where if the need for interlinking arises, such interlinking must be created. Standard Operating Procedures is a tool of high utility in creating these process and procedural interlinking.

In comparison to a procedure, the outcome of a process is not easily measurable. Because a process is a broader concept or a broader map of events, the outcome of a process is not readily measurable, especially in comparison to a procedure. Procedures are much more straightforward and the outcomes could be readily classified as either a yes or a no. If we consider the payroll process, determining whether the process was successful or not would entail generating reports from multiple sources. But to determine the same for any particular operational activity within a payroll process is not difficult as the input-output standards are specific and narrow with the use of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

While a process is like a mapped journey, procedures are about how to do specific tasks that may be involved in that journey. For example, if the need arises to replace a flat tire during the journey, there is a procedure for it. In business, profession, and public services, processes and procedures are more routine than a personal journey. There is a certainty that processes will arise and procedures will be required. Hence, organisations plan their processes and procedures with the maximum possible scope of certainty of success. Some do it on their own and some others take the help of SOP consultants from the outside.


Procedure example – How to make a cup of tea

Process (management) example – How to prepare and serve tea to guests at an event? It will involve not only tea preparation but also other operations like the purchase of raw materials, arrangement of utensils and other cooking requirements, securing a place for tea preparation, arrangement of serving cups and plates, team management, etc.
Example of a Process – Payroll Process

Example of Operation (in a payroll process) – Tax Calculations

Example of Procedure (in Tax Calculation Operation of a Payroll Process) – Adherence to taxation laws, company rules, and any other optional/mandatory requirement.
No, process and procedure are not synonyms at the technical level.

Author Bio


Rupal Agarwal

Chief Strategy Officer
Dr. Rupal’s “Everything is possible” attitude helps achieve the impossible. Dr. Rupal Agarwal has worked with 300+ companies from various sectors, since 2012, to custom-build SOPs, push their limits and improve performance efficiency. Rupal & her team have remarkable success stories of helping companies scale 10X with business process standardization.

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