Dealing with process exceptions

Written by Ian James, Sep 7, 2015

Sometimes there are so many process exceptions that they become the rule rather than, well... the exception. Here are a few tips on handling them.

There can be so many process exceptions, that they become the rule

Getting derailed by Process Exceptions

I do a lot of process mapping with small teams. Usually I am the guy at the whiteboard with the marker pen trying to capture all processes from what people are saying. I know the team is making progress in a process mapping session when everyone is so engaged that I can barely keep up with the conversation.

Sadly, it’s not always like that. Sometimes I see folded arms and rolling eyes. People are hesitant and unsure. I have to coax the sequence of activities out of them. This can be a sign that there are a lot of exceptions or that we are not actually talking about a single process. I ask them what happens and what they really want to say is: it depends.

What are Process Exceptions

Large number of process exceptions

Exceptions are those things that do not follow the process. It’s not that they don’t follow the process, it’s that they simply cannot. In some cases, the exception lacks some characteristic that the process demands. At the extreme, the number of exceptions can be so large that they are the rule rather than, well, the exception. It’s one of the biggest causes of problems in processes.

When you come to map processes like these, of course you are going to hesitate. Conventional process maps show what is supposed to happen when it all goes according to plan - not what actually happens when it all goes wrong. And that’s why people have difficulty mapping processes with a lot of exceptions.

The Impact of Process Exceptions


So what’s the impact of an exception? Well, imagine that you have a train on a railway track, but it can’t follow the track because there is an exception in the way. The train will jump the rails and when a train goes off the rails … it’s ugly. Manual things have to happen. Typically that means finding missing information, or treating it in a different way. Whatever it is that is required to handle this particular exception, it’s going to cause a delay.

Since the exception can’t follow the process we need some kind of handling mechanism outside the normal process. And how do we handle exceptions in most organizations? Well, the answer is our good friend, email. In many ways email is the default exception-handling system in the Western business world.

But now we’re off the rails, remember? We have no guidelines about what the sequence of activities is. Our structured, pre-planned process has suddenly become unstructured and unplanned.

Handling Process Exceptions

So what can you do when there are a lot of exceptions in a process? The secret is to keep them out of email. Email is a great messaging system, but it is a terrible process management application. It carries all our messages. That makes it really difficult to pick out the important stuff. A process exception shares space in the in-tray with emails about not parking in the HR manager’s parking space and all the other information that we pass through email.

In the last few years a new class of collaboration apps have appeared in the scene. Among them are Trello, Asana, Tallify, and Process Street. This is not an exhaustive list, I know. In my defense, I am planning a series on the relative merits of these programs. In the meantime, you should take a look at them for yourself. They don’t tout themselves as process management or workflow apps. But don’t be fooled. Even if they present themselves as project management tools, they are sufficiently flexible to handle process exceptions.

These apps allow you to create a “case” on the fly. Think of a case as the equivalent of an exception. None of these apps require a set of pre-planned steps. This frees you up to let the user determine the sequence of events as required by the particular nature of the exception.


All the above apps have built in notification systems. Properly set up, this means you can see progress within the “case”, as events unfold.

So now we have moved away from structured workflow to a situation where the user is in control of what happens. This is exactly what you need for exceptions. As the user takes whatever action is necessary to get the exception back on track, you can track all the activity inside one case. And even better, the reporting within the app allows you to have some visibility of all current exceptions.

If you are using any productivity apps like this for exceptions, please comment below and share your experiences. We would be very interested in how it is working out.

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