Sunday, July 19, 2009

Processes patterns as predictable as Mexico City rain

Mexico City, another wet afternoon

Three months, two business processes, one client with a new system in production. And I'm not talking about some irrelevant back-office processes. The Technolab team have implemented, for the Mexico division of a major international life and medical insurance company, a BPM system for processing new policies, policy renewals and maintenance, from client request through to payment.

In three months, we've taken the blueprints for current state processes from the business analysts and designed, built and deployed a system that should see huge benefits for the company and its employees. And at the end of it, the one prediction I made to myself came true. Business processes fit one of three patterns, and I only like two of them:

  1. Straight Line
  2. Single Step / Star
  3. Structured Chaos

When I lead process projects, as I did this one, I tend to guide the client to one of the first two patterns, since they tend to reflect the reality of the way people work and lead to a successful, usable and subsequently easily adopted (by the users) system.

Let me quickly talk through the three process patterns.

1. Straight Line

I love it when a process turns out to fit this pattern. Its exactly what you are trying to achieve when you improve a business process; a process that starts cleanly with a specific outcome in mind, and with minimal deviations that always try to return to the main path as quickly as possible. Why is this good? Because its easy for users to understand, and its clear what the fastest, most efficient set of operations is. A company can build key performance indicators around this, since its easy to measure progress of work through the process.

2. Single Step / Star

How can I call this 'single step' and 'star' in the same breath? This process pattern really revolves around a key single step where the vast majority of processing is done. The steps outside of this often represent exceptions or sub-processes, so much like the Straight Line, they are deviations. And although I say this is single step, the reality is that the work may well cycle around this 'step' many, many times, being delivered to different people and roles on each revolution. But since there is little way to enforce the order of this work (at least with the time or money available to re-engineer the process), while still allowing users to get the job done, the process pretty much becomes an orderly way to track work as it passes between users, with delivery under their control.

3. Structured Chaos

Its when project teams try to force fit a process on top of current operations without effective analysis or change management that I think you see the third pattern. Note I say effective analysis, since there may still be a large amount of time spent on it to produce this result. And there is a chance that is may just work in practice. This is what BPM tools strive to be able to represent, and the temptation is therefore to go with the flexibility they offer. But to me, this process pattern shows a poorly thought out scope for the process. In other words nobody has defined what the process is actually trying to achieve and what type of work it is trying to handle. The more steps and decisions you have to add to manage the necessary requirements of the process, the more likely it is that you have missed one. Often, if a prototype process starts to indicate Structured Chaos, it may be time to rethink, and split the process into several Straight Lines, or possibly one Single Step / Star.

So at the end of three months, what have we arrived at? Well, I'm sure I would not be telling the story in the same way if it was structured chaos. We have deployed a nice clean Straight Line for one process and a nice Single Step / Star for the other. The end result is deceptively simple, and perhaps as much time was spent getting us to this result as actually physically implementing software. Which is great, as the processes will work fast, there is a lot less to go wrong and a lot more flexibility to handle the 20% of cases that don't quite fit strict rules.

Maybe BPM vendors would relabel Structured Chaos as a beneficial Complex Process. It all comes down to how you market your capabilities and limitations. Still, after 12 years of doing this stuff, I haven't seen a customer happy when you finally deliver them Structured Chaos. I'll stick with my two successful patterns, and leave the 'anti-pattern' to the BPM marketing departments and services teams.

A post from the Improving It blog

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