Tuesday, September 15, 2009

When Business Process Management (BPM) is a waste of time

The great selling point of business process management (BPM) technology is that it will boost the efficiency of your operations, reduce waste and provide visibility. Or some other combination of appealing words. This can be true, to varying degrees, largely dependent on the actual business problems that need to be solved and how much of a mess the business is in already. After many years around process and workflow software, I'm coming to the conclusion that there are two styles of business improvement / workflow / process project requirements:

  1. BPM automation
  2. Everything else

If you have a business improvement project, you probably only should use BPM tools if you are absolutely focused on automation and systems integration, rather than enabling the interactions of people. Otherwise it seems like a misplaced investment. Let me dive into this a little more, so you can see what I mean.

1. BPM automation
When it becomes more important that the process runs without fault or error every time, and can be represented as rules and logic, then putting a person in the middle of it is naturally going to fail. We've all had rough Monday mornings, or Friday afternoons where we just want to leave for the weekend. People have not evolved over the millennia to make perfect decisions in an office environment. But they are great for decisions that require judgement, intuition, intelligence, or where the work being done is not valuable enough to require the investment to achieve complete automation.

If you're going to make the huge investment to try and codify your current human-run business processes with BPM tools, you often should consider cutting out the middle-man (literally). See what can be done to move the manual intervention out to the edges of the process. Let people handle the 5% of really complex stuff, the errors, the escalations, reading and data entry of scrawled correspondence, and the touchy-feely customer services - the things that machines can't do. Let the BPM tools process the work 'staight-through' wherever it is possible, making perfect decisions in split-seconds, finishing the process with an automatic update of another system, or throwing a really complex case to an intelligent worker.

2. Everything else
In my opinion, most human-to-human BPM solutions (i.e. those that move work from one human worker to another) end up becoming glorified collaboration tools with a few rules scattered around. Most of the time and effort involved in implementation of new BPM solutions becomes a matter of working out how to make the workflow flexible enough to meet the many interactions that real people in real offices must perform to get work done.

Go ahead, remove the waste from that process you want to improve (I agree that is important), but don't get too tied up in trying to map it out and enforce the new process at every little interaction, because frankly, if you feel you need to do that you probably need to reconsider your use of humans in the process.

Projects that fit the 'Everything else' bucket can be nicely categorized. Typically they
  1. do not warrant the huge investment and effort required for full automation, but do still need improving
  2. can not be automated, because people absolutely have to be in the middle of the work

If you have a project that fits either or both of these categories, consider using a tool that is better suited to the type of work that is being done. BPM is probably not it. Find a tool that does not require 3 months of wasted time analyzing how to improve human interactions, before actually delivering anything. In short, consider tools that are designed for humans: out of the box solutions that do what you need already; work management tools designed for human workflows; collaborative and case management tools that provide structure around an otherwise unstructured set of operations.

If you want to improve your business but don't want to completely automate it, select a tool that assists people in doing their jobs, not one that is actually designed to prevent workers from doing the many things that need to be done.

A post from the Improving It blog

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1 comment:

Pete said...

Hey Phil,

Nice blog, and I think you would make an excellent participant in ebizQ's BPM Forum.

The link is here: http://www.ebizq.net/blogs/ebizq_forum/2009/09/will-google-wave-have-an-impact-on-human-centric-bpm.php

If interested, email me at peter@ebizq.net