Friday, December 29, 2006

Tech Must Not Rule, Part 2

Further to my last post, I thought I’d illustrate the inadequacy of a technology-driven approach to BPM initiatives. I recently read a “process selection methodology” provided by a leading BPMS vendor. The methodology provides a step-by-step guide for choosing candidate processes for BPM.

The first aspect of the methodology that struck me as wrongheaded was that a process lacking structure – i.e., an ad hoc process that lacked rules – was not a good candidate for BPM. In my opinion, a lack of structure is a major reason for a BPM initiative. Ad hoc processes should be documented and codified such that they become repeatable and reliable. This was clearly a technologist’s point of view – a technologist who is probably often frustrated by attempts to apply technologies to solve problems before the problems have been addressed using the appropriate management skills.

The next aspect of the methodology that was troublesome was the notion that “BPM is not suitable for concurrent collaboration.” This is a terrible premise. Generally speaking, work takes place individually but within groups (pooled interdependence), serially (sequential interdependence), or back and forth between individuals and teams (reciprocal interdependence). Pooled interdependence is coordinated through the application of standards. Sequential interdependence is coordinated using a combination of standards and rules. Reciprocal interdependence is coordinated through a combination of standards, rules and mutual adjustment. In the eyes of this vendor, only sequential interdependence can be dealt with effectively using BPM? That idea is simply a non-starter. It’s tantamount to saying a car works better going forward, so car transmissions should be built without reverse gears. To be effective, BPM must address all types of work.

Another questionable idea promoted by this vendor: that processes that include participants who are unwilling (i.e., stubborn) or unable (i.e., unskilled) to change in order to improve the process are not good candidates for BPM. In fact, process improvement is always accompanied by change, and change management skills are a critical ingredient in any BPM initiative. Again, I see a technologist’s viewpoint – someone uninitiated in the ways of motivation, management and leadership who would love – in some utopian technosphere – to be able to add the magic dust of BPM and have everyone fall in line due to the technology’s obvious superiority. This is precisely why so many technical projects fail.

And the hits keep on coming. Next was the notion that processes that have poorly defined roles and responsibilities for participants were not good candidates for BPM. It is, in fact, a main objective of BPM to properly define roles and responsibilities, hire appropriately, provide adequate training and reward the participants in the process for acting in a manner that reflects those roles and responsibilities.

The last straw (as if they’re weren’t enough already) was the idea that the failure of automation to reduce cycle times, costs, quality, etc. reduces the viability of a process for inclusion in a BPM initiative. BPM is not automation. Automation is but one method of improving process efficiency, effectiveness and agility. The process is run by people, and as such the inadequacy of automation in improving a process should never deter a BPM initiative.

All of these reasons support the argument that technologists must not rule the day when it comes to BPM. It is the perfect world sought by many in the technical community – while a noble pursuit – that is so elusive, that establishes unrealistic expectations and underlies many of the IT failures we’ve seen through the years. BPM is a management discipline, a discipline that embodies all of the many tools and practices that define excellence in workflow, measurement, analysis, governance, human resources, organizational structure, management, leadership and yes, technology.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Technology Must Not Rule

Much of the recent literature on BPM centers on the enabling technology. A wonderful thing, this BPM technology, but not the point of Business Process Management per se; BPM is not BPM technology.

My clients want an easily implemented, cost-effective way to move work through a process, including the forms, related documents, decisions, approvals and all associated tasks for all involved. Sometimes a BPMS provides the solution: Log in, see what’s on today’s to do list, see what’s coming up, perform the work, fill out the forms, automatically notify the interested parties that my work (at a particular process step) is complete and report on it. But the Business Process Management part of that set of activities is technology-neutral. Technology enables, but even the best technology absent good management leads to failure. As such, genuine Business Process Management expertise must precede BPM technology – the foundations of good process design, execution and reporting must be in place prior to introducing BPM technology (or ECM, ERP, SOA or just about any technology for that matter).

This approach promotes the strong cooperation needed between the business user and the technical implementer for this or any other technology to propagate. The worst-case fate of BPM technology is that it becomes the glue between a chaotic ensemble of poorly functioning components in order to squeeze a modicum of efficiency out of old investments, and then gets relegated to the trash heap of promising applications that never caught on. No disrespect intended at all (BPM technology is serious genius in action), but if BPM is dominated by a technical elite, the ultimate community of end-users (i.e., business users) will balk. The business user and professional manager must come to the fore and participate in the debate.

“We must make things as simple as possible, not simpler,” said Einstein. The idea is a brilliant one; let’s maintain the elegance of the invention by preserving the beauty of its simplicity, so we businesspeople can easily communicate to our staffs the benefits of enduring the discomfort that always accompanies changing the way they approach their work – no matter how sophisticated the technology.

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Standardization Paradox

Like me, you've no doubt read countless documents, white papers, books, articles, product briefs, blogs and message boards that tout the promise of BPM. Surely, there's a race for dominance, a contest of wills between competing technologies and standards and a succession of frameworks that represent a “best practice.” The challenge with all this banter is that the inevitable “winner” of this debate will only intensify the very thing BPM promises to eradicate: the need for standardization. Businesspeople like the fact that the guts of the system are hidden under the hood, they like that they can manipulate data elements in a graphical environment, that they can draw their process maps with little stick figures and email icons, and really couldn’t care less what technology is driving the end result. The standard is irrelevant (to them). Or perhaps more accurately, the BPMS they happen to be using superimposes an ad hoc standard on their specific environment.

At their most fundamental level, BPMS technologies enable the knitting together of multiple, disparate systems – across activities, processes, functions, departments and organizations – such that a logical workflow can be managed without excessive manual handoffs into and out of all those separate environments. The wonder inherent in this is that the technology is not only perfectly suited, but consciously designed to be standards-agnostic. A “standard” with which a collection of systems has to comply wrecks the obvious benefit of a BPMS. The value would evaporate, as the formerly disparate systems are readily integrated. Maybe that's where this is all headed. Maybe that's good. (Maybe that's what SOA is all about?)

But there’s another consequence of the adoption of a standard: The need for standardization is rooted deeply in the psyches (and egos) of the technical elite. Their work is astounding – the bodies of knowledge to which they contribute, the codification of ideas to create comprehensive methodologies – is to be applauded. We (business and tech folk alike) are, taken together, one communal brain assembling a massive compendium of knowledge and information, based on the collective experience of thousands of professionals who together represent perhaps tens of millions of hours of learning and work experience. The output is impressive, useful and necessary. But should one idea dominate? If all process maps had to be BPMN compliant and translated into BPEL, would the world really be a better place? Whatever happened to UML? BPML? I know, BPML is so 2004.

The paradoxical point of all this is that it's the competition for being the standard-bearer that accelerates the growth of the discipline, while the attainment of a bona fide standard may mark the inevitable slowing of progress. Standards typically prevail locally - within an industry or geographical area - and/or ephemerally - until some disruptive technology comes along. To achieve their aim, BPMS standards need only prevail organizationally - between and among the stakeholders of a given process within a given organization.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Innovation vs. Leadership

You’ve no doubt read widely about the importance of innovation in gaining strategic advantage, that the advent of “disruptive technologies” is what creates giants of industry. Our BPM practice philosophy at Perr&Knight, however, is based on the idea that competitive advantage is best achieved by adopting a continuous improvement framework – a framework that does not require the innovative breakthroughs that characterize disruptive technologies to be effective.

Surely, "disruptive" innovations are the mark of many strong competitors. But these innovations, over time, become widely adopted, and the competitive advantage they once provided erodes. And so must begin another cycle, and another innovation to maintain the competitive advantage. The problem is that true breakthroughs are few and far between, require much trial and error and are insatiable consumers of research and development funds.

Continuous improvement, driven by thought leadership, is what makes great competitors.

The good news is that the cycle works equally well with a far more mundane approach, where operational excellence is a product of a discipline, consistently applied – and of thought leadership – rather than reliance on multiple, innovative, strategic breakthroughs. While breakthroughs can be wonderful catapults, it is in the maintenance of market leadership – not innovativeness – on which competitors must focus.

The world is riddled with stories of innovative companies that lost their leadership positions. IBM, Sony, Apple – all delivered innovative, breakthrough products (the PC, Betamax, the Macintosh) and enjoyed the number one spot only to see it evaporate in an onslaught of aggressive competition. All three have regained their composure, though each pursued a rebirth using very different strategies: IBM had to completely remake itself and shift its focus to professional services and acquisitions; Sony became a mark of quality rather than genuine innovation; and Apple dominated the “cool” category in computing and now virtually owns the personal audioplayer market (once dominated by the Sony Walkman) by improving upon earlier innovations. ("Breakthrough" MP3 technology used to be dominated by Creative Labs.)

Cycles of innovation and cycles of leadership certainly overlap, though it’s the commitment to continuous improvement driven by process discipline that seems to be the best marker of consistent market leadership.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Too Many Cooks?

This morning I headed to the local bagel shop for my daily breakfast. This is typically a frustrating affair, as the toasted bagel and orange juice I order often takes five, ten or even fifteen minutes to be delivered. Worse, I noticed the variance in delivery times of my order had absolutely nothing to do with the volume of customers in the store at any given time, and there were usually five people “working” behind the counter – a chaotic ensemble of poorly trained, ill-managed, customer-averse ne’er do wells. IMHO.

But today was different. Today, there were three workers in the entire store, and no obvious reduction in the number of customers. I walked up to the counter and within seconds was asked for my order. I shuffled to the left toward the register, and right on queue came a second worker who grabbed me an orange juice and rang up my order. Markedly absent was the usual slip of paper that included my order, formerly filled out by one of the workers and handed to me for presentation to the cashier. Instead, the order was taken and the work begun as soon as I finished my request. I was out of there, toasted bagel and all, in less than three minutes. Same number of customers, fewer workers, no paperwork, less waiting time. Why?

Today’s experience illustrated the benefits of good management, and the folly of knee-jerk attempts to fix broken processes. Many times throughout my career I’ve seen ill-prepared managers try to deal with volume increases by adding staff, rather than taking a hard look at the process and the training, motivation and workflow associated with it. The “throw more bodies at the problem” approach always fails: overhead is increased and the process actually slows down. Yet, this is the way most inexperienced or under-skilled managers deal with expansion. The paperwork (i.e., order slip), no longer needed, had undoubtedly been added previously to better differentiate the work among so many hands.

The next time you’re in a similar situation, take note of the process the people are following. There’s a lot information there; unfortunately, many times you get a lesson in what not to do. Today’s experience was heartening – let’s hope the good experience continues, if only for the sake of my impatient stomach.

Monday, December 11, 2006

If You Want Something Done...

Back in junior high and high school, I had the good fortune of having at least one remarkable teacher – everyone should be so lucky. To say Andy Blackett was eccentric is an understatement. He’d regale his students with fantastic stories of foreign wars and exotic wives, wore his pants two inches too short and became insanely animated when he taught, and so was able to generate enthusiasm among his students over the most mundane of subjects. His trademark clear-heeled shoes and West Indian lilt kept everyone riveted during class, his excitement always palpable. He loved what he did.

Way back in the late 70s I was a sophomore struggling to adjust to life at the high school while working roughly 40 hours per week at a bakery. The sense of overwhelm was incredible: the household chores, the homework assignments, the extra-curricular activities, the attempts at a social life and the full-time job were incredibly taxing. How could I possibly do all that, have a successful high school career, get into college and get ahead in life? Instinctively, I turned to Mr. Blackett.

He provided me with my very first “Master Plan” – six sheets of yellow, legal-sized paper taped together to form a huge poster of sorts, on which I listed all the days of the week, my school, after-school and work commitments and every chore I had to accomplish – accompanied by these words of wisdom: “If you want something done, Mr. Berg, (yes, he’d call me Mr. Berg, even as a student), give it to a busy man.” At once I had an epiphany: Once the work is organized, there’s clarity; once there’s clarity, you can prioritize and go about getting the work done. Surely I was busy, but the work, organized in this way, melted away, and I began to excel in my schoolwork, excel in my extracurricular activities, get my chores done and work after school and on weekends to have more spending money than any of my friends. And I started to date the prettiest girl in school, having wooed her away from the captain of our high school football team with a whole lot of song lyrics and poetry. True story. The feeling of overwhelm went away, the work got done and I realized it was all in the process – the way you went about attacking those commitments and obligations had everything to do with how effective and efficient you were at fulfilling them.

Mr. Blackett died tragically more than ten years ago, a victim of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, still only in his 50s. But he died universally respected, adored and honored with just about every award and accolade with which a school teacher could be bestowed. Among his mourners were two other former students, Bob Costas and Rosie O'Donnell, who also learned powerful lessons from this great man.

Today I was reading about Vivek Paul, Wipro’s former vice chairman and CEO, and was reminded once again of Mr. Blackett’s words and the lesson that I’ve carried around for nearly thirty years. Sridhar Mitta, one of Paul’s colleagues at EnThink (a company in which Wipro had invested), was previously head of Wipro’s global R&D function, and so was intimately familiar with the company and its methods. Mitta was amazed that Paul, a busy senior executive at an extremely fast-growing company, was always at hand when needed, and had plenty of time for customers, too.

“How do you have so much time?” Mitta asked, astounded that Paul was so available, especially given that his predecessor at Wipro routinely worked 17-hour days.

Paul, the epitome of a busy man who got things done, had a quick answer which should be a lesson for us all: “It’s all in the process.”

The next time someone tells you they have no time, or they’re too busy, or swamped, or overwhelmed to get something done, you might remind them of this story, and the man that took a $150 million blip and made it a $1.9 billion global powerhouse, or the teacher that left us well before his time, yet still managed to influence generations of students, and continues to do so more than a decade after his death. And they had time.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

BPM and Outsourcing

A recent survey by EquaTerra [1] highlighted an important aspect of outsourcing: that most of the time, an outsourcing initiative is accompanied by a process improvement initiative.

Survey respondents fell into one of four categories:

They transformed their internal processes prior to implementing an outsourcing strategy;
They transformed their internal processes after implementing an outsourcing strategy;
They outsourced and adopted a continuous improvement framework;
They outsourced and maintained internal operations as-is.

Approaches to BPO
Not surprisingly, some 83% of respondents undertook some form of process improvement initiative along with their outsourcing strategy. Couple this with the notion that most outsourcing strategies are undertaken to save money (70% of respondents in a recent Deloitte Consulting survey) or to gain best practices (57% from the same survey), and you have an extremely compelling reason to marry any outsourcing initiative with a solid BPM effort.
Why Companies Outsource [2]

Surely, an outsourcing strategy absent a BPM effort will reduce the efficacy of the outsourcing initiative. You’ll note that many of my writings beg management to always consider the cultural aspects of the organization in which they're operating, and those with which they're collaborating when outsourcing – an aspect that’s all too often overlooked. Applying process management best practices around an outsourcing strategy provides a lethal dose of competitive curare. Those companies that execute correctly will surely claim leadership positions, if they haven’t already.

[1] EquaTerra’s 1Q 2006 Pulse Survey

[2] Deloitte Consulting

Monday, December 04, 2006

Employees' Number One Concern: Priorities

It’s that time of year again. We look back on the year and see what we’ve accomplished. Some of us have amassed proud track records over the year, some of us have been left reeling, having accomplished little. So what separates those who get things done from those who do not? And what does all this have to do with BPM?

Turns out, it has everything to do with BPM. An organization that encourages process thinking is focused on defining objectives, aligning processes with customer needs and providing rewards commensurate with each employee’s contribution. An organization that embraces BPM will find many employees happily logging their accomplishments at year end, content knowing that the work they did contributed to something larger than their own personal ambitions.

By providing a comprehensive framework for the design and documentation of critical processes, BPM eliminates the overwhelm that often accompanies less organized efforts. The paradox of a disciplined process framework is that it actually frees employees up to work creatively toward well-defined pursuits. It enables an organization to be less bureaucratic due to the very nature of the discipline it involves. It’s analogous to the classically trained rock musician that cranks out hit after hit. The basics are there and followed religiously; the good music is but a creative layering atop known “best practices” – whether chord progressions or workflow, it really doesn’t matter much. The resulting good work is purely a function of the solid foundational principles, consistently applied and continuously-improved.

The foundations of BPM make clear employee priorities, thus providing a perfect canvas on which to express individual talents in a manner consistent with the larger goals of the organization. How can you use BPM to get your own employees’ priorities well-defined and widely communicated? Ask me.