Friday, November 03, 2006

Top-Down Design: Process Abstraction

Just what is abstraction and why is it important in process improvement initiatives?

Many improvement efforts fail because the vox populi has too much influence on the design strategy. Organizations are not democratic institutions; for all of the freedoms it affords, democracy is an inefficient means of delivering a specific set of objectives. Imagine if an Army field commander put a vote to the troops in his charge whether they should head over a hill and into enemy fire? Top-down thinking is what compels strategic plans. The abstraction is the common framework that accommodates the majority of cases and should be designed first. Exceptions are dealt with afterwards.

For processes, this abstraction is represented by the familiar "supplier, input, process, output, customer" (SIPOC) diagrams used in Six Sigma initiatives. Any process can be comfortably fit into this abstract model. Beyond that is where the real design challenges begin as you get increasingly granular to accommodate the nuances of each function, department or individual. To alleviate those challenges, start with big picture thinking that brings consensus to the high-level abstract process that accommodates 80% of cases.

Further, always maintain the integrity of the data related to the process, whether it’s customer data, activity-related data, or any other. This means maintaining a central data store from which all functions derive the data that populate various process steps.

The wrong approach is to build from the ground up at a granular level, attempting to address the needs of individuals before defining the abstraction. Top-down process design promotes consistency as a solid foundation is developed to address the vast majority of process cases. Bottom-up design breeds chaos and results in the need for all kinds of "spaghetti code" to integrate independently developed disparate systems.

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