Business process management basics

Peter Strempel

Put simply, the processes referred to in business process management (BPM) are the sequence of activities people carry out to do their jobs. This includes business logic built into supporting information systems, choreographies of interactions, and hierarchies of approval and delegation.

All of these come with a cost in time, infrastructure, and money. That’s a powerful reason managers should spend time considering what improvements could be made with BPM methods to save on costs, add value to existing products and services, or designing entirely new processes to improve customer satisfaction, generate new business, and boost bottom-line productivity and/or profitability.

BPM is today widely practiced by business process analysts, sometimes referred to as just business analysts (BAs). It is one of my core skills.

I draw on a set of integrated tools and methods to model processes, analyse efficiency both quantitatively and qualitatively, and apply techniques like Lean Six Sigma to reduce inefficiency, waste, and defects, while at the same time targeting value for the client or customer as the basis for everything that happens in any process step.

One of the central methods used to more easily visualise and analyse business processes is the Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) language, as illustrated in Figure 1 below..

FIGURE 1: a hypothetical travel booking process in BPMN. Click the image to see a larger view. The diagram is less a working model than an example designed to show some of the features of the visual language. Most BPMN models are very large and cover many printed pages to capture all the necessary details of the processes they describe.

When I produce work like this, my experience and training allows me to employ a wider framework of reference than most BAs –

  • Expertise in enterprise architecture allows me to see how each process relates to all the others in a broader strategic context, avoiding the risk of misaligning improvement efforts.
  • An ITIL-driven service management design background helps me remain mindful of the need for smooth transitions as part of process improvements.
  • Front-of-mind PRINCE2 project management methods inject my tasks with a disciplined, carefully planned approach process improvement projects, as well as the ability to operate in the shortened agile increment cycles.
  • Public affairs management experience gives me the skills and experience to draft and tailor clear and effective communications, as well as drafting clear process analysis, benefits realisation, and related change management documentation.
  • Training and transformational management know-how means I always factor into my BPM projects an awareness of training or organisational change needs, ready to be turned into development and delivery of the necessary workshops or transformational projects.

Why is it important to my clients that I have this broader outlook?

  • BPM needs an architectural framework to avoid the myopia that comes with focusing too closely on a single process, or even a related set of processes. If these aren’t integrated into an organisation’s broader strategic direction, they are likely to be expensive failures.
  • Where process changes affect IT operations, insights from the ITIL suite of best-practice methods add value in anticipating how to gain efficiencies from process changes, and how to leverage these efficiencies across the entire organisation.
  • Most process improvements are projects in their own right-temporary work efforts that nevertheless have to be integrated into everyday operations. Putting a project manager in charge is a logical move, and offers the target-driven discipline of framing process improvements in terms of discrete work packages and well-defined project ‘products’. Reporting on package progress, costs, and product quality makes the whole effort transparent and manageable.
  • Even good business analysts can fail at their efforts for lack of clear communication in explaining benefits, features, functions and changes. Professional communication in explaining project goals, progress, and outcomes is critically important in promoting management and staff how to best reap maximum benefits from improvements and efficiencies gained.

Still confused about BPM?

Maybe zooming out a little to see a bigger picture will help explain the details. Contemporary BPM practices, along with IT Service management (ITSM) and project management, are based on a ‘continuous improvement cycle’ pioneered by American statistician and management consultant William Edwards Deming, based on the earlier work of his mentor, the physicist, engineer, and statistician Walter A Shewhart. In the 1950s, Deming he was tasked with helping Japanese industry re-build after its almost complete destruction in WWII.

I have written a short history of business process management you can read for fun and background. For our purposes here, though, it’s enough to note that Deming’s advice about focusing on the continuous improvement of every existing process was a significant factor in the Japanese ‘economic miracle’ of the 1960s and ‘70s, and led to the now globally ubiquitous quality management approach. The Shewhart-Deming cycle of continuous improvement is illustrated in Figure 2 below.

FIGURE 2: the Sewhart-Deming continuous improvement cycle adopted for many of today’s iterative organisational improvement processes.


The idea behind the cycle is a continuous and iterative approach to observing processes, planning for improvements based on desired outcomes, implementing the improvements, fine-tuning them, and then repeating (iterating) the cycle.

The business process management life-cycle borrows heavily from the Deming model, adopting the same continuous and iterative approach, but also incorporating other techniques, and shown in Figure 3 below.

BPM lifecycle
FIGURE 3: the Shewhart-Deming cycle turned into the business process management lifecycle.

Following the stages described in Figure 3, an audit of ‘as-is’ processes is required to serve as a benchmark. That may seem like a waste of time. You may think you already know all about how things work right now. However, experience shows that until you place any process under the magnifying glass, many peculiarities, flaws, and inconsistencies are never recognised or taken into account when it comes to improving things. That is particularly the case if people inside the organisation are so close to every-day operations they can no longer ‘see the forest for the trees’.

In such cases it can be easier for an outsider like me to come in and analyse the process from start to finish with fresh eyes, but also by working with the organisation’s subject matter experts to ensure nothing is missed or undervalued.

BPM can be applied to one, many, or all processes, depending on the scope of the project. Organisations with modest resources might want to start with just one process they know to be a problem area.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the BPM lifecycle is innovation. Imagining what is possible in improving on existing ways of doing things, or designing entirely new procedures, requires concentrated effort in turning strategic goals into workable changes or improvements. It has more in common with strategic planning than other aspects of process management, and will always test the ingenuity of business analysts.

Risks for inexperienced players

One of the most serious shortcomings evident in business process management projects is a disregard for the value human qualities, skills, and insights add to any process. Many BAs think people in the processes they are trying to improve are just quanta that can be easily manipulated, like an inanimate process, or ‘re-deployed’ and sacked as if they were ‘things’.

I have written about this in my comment on why it’s a mistake to use business process management to dehumanise jobs and customer service, or to strip away organisational memory represented by staff.

In most cases it is also true that properly motivated staff close to any process will be much more ingenious about improving it than a squad of BAs or consultants.

Unfortunately such obvious factors are often overlooked by freshly minted, inexperienced BAs, and practitioners without people skills, empathy, or the responsibility for dealing with the consequences of losing key staff.

If you would like to discuss your BPM needs, use my contact form and I’ll respond as soon as I can. An initial discussion won’t cost you anything.

RELATED: read my case study on the 2016 online census project for a discussion of how a greater focus on business process analysis might have saved a lot of pain.