Hammer time: back to the 1990s

IFN515 – Fundamentals of Business Process Management

WEEK ONE: Dubious foundations with a glib approach

Michael Martin Hammer.
Michael Martin Hammer.

The most conspicuous absence in the introductory lecture and readings has been any mention of enterprise architecture as the overarching strategic discipline in process modelling, implementation, and management.

Instead we are presented with a standalone conception rooted in the work of the late Michael Hammer (13 April 1948 – 3 Sept 2008), whose 1990 Harvard Business Review essay ‘Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate’ is an ode to ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap, the Wall Street buccaneers that adored him, and ultimately to the ascendant plutocratic orthodoxy that has manipulated economic policy in the USA since the 1980s.

Hammer’s thrust appeared to be quite rational: re-align business processes with customers to create greater value by cutting waste, flattening hierarchies, reducing human interventions, and ultimately getting rid of jobs through the automation his headline seemed to steer clear of.

No doubt American corporations couldn’t compete possessing bloated management structures and dated processes against the sharp and hive-like Japanese corporations which treated all employees as dehumanised worker ants.

But as has been remarked so often elsewhere, most notably by Henry Mintzberg, this kind of management ‘rationalisation’ really only led to dehumanisation and some short-term turnarounds that weren’t longitudinally recognised as competitive advantage for lack of strategic vision.

And this is where process management seems to fall down: it focuses on doing things better, but not on what to do and why.

The introductory lecture glosses over the downsizing theme by suggesting that instead of the revolutionary business process re-engineering (BPR) approach, a more gradual, incremental business process management (BPM) paradigm would avoid the frictions and confrontations inherent in making people unemployed and unemployable.

Hammer, an engineer before his career as management guru, softened his stance considerably in the next reading, published posthumously in 2010: ‘What is Business Process Management?’. He is also copiously referred to in the unit textbook by Dumas and others.

Hammer argues for a history derived from the quality movement (spearheaded by the Japanese in the late 1970s and early 1980s), but incomplete without the more strategic approach to overall processes rather than just repeatable results. Hammer was really arguing that he invented BPM as an improvement on TQM.

Further on in the paper he makes some deterministic statements of the kind so loved by management students love for providing a fixed model they don’t have to think about.

Lean and Six Sigma are offered as adjuncts to BPM to focus on reducing waste and committing to a continuous improvement cycle that seeks to reduce defects or exceptions in six key areas nominated as critical to strategic goals, and performance evaluated by empirical methods (statistical analysis).

Measures or metrics to be adopted are suggested as sub-sets of cost, time, and error rates.

A process lifecyle is defined as a loop beginning with identification of business needs and their articulation in processes; the discovery of ‘as-is’ processes, presumably by audit; the analysis of as-is processes leading to a re-design of ‘to-be’ processes; an implementation phase linked to change management disciplines; and the monitoring and controlling phase according to the chosen metrics, but also changing strategic and tactical circumstances. Hammer references Deming directly. The Deming continuous improvement cycle surely is one of the most influential ideas underpinning management theory today.

Pre-requisites for BPM are defined as strong leadership support for the necessary changes that carry process improvements; organisational culture that reduces silo and power-base alignments to focus on process and customer value; governance by a process office or council; and acquisition of process expertise with career support for those specialists.

BPM enablers are clearly thought out design specifications, meaning in particular a clear idea of boundaries; end-to-end process metrics, meaning these are not to be discontinuous across functional or silo demarcations; a cadre of self-motivated and prescient specialists to think both strategically and about the detail of process design and management; integration of functional support like IT and HR into process design and execution, implying a kind of subservience to process management; and process owners or champions.

A kind of process hierarchy is defined as core processes, being the main processes underpinning the business purpose; enabling processes that support the core, and governing processes that are the strategic and administrative overhead.

An Enterprise process model (EPM) is proposed by Hammer as a necessary one-page summary, or high-level overview of all processes, with decomposition to specifics presented elsewhere. The EPM is intended as a management tool to map out how any operational or strategic change might impact organisation-wide processes.

Process failures are categorised by Hammer as of essentially two types: recurring or pervasive problems are likely to be related to process design flaws; and sporadic or random problems are likely to be related to problems with process execution.

I can imagine very clearly how enthusiastic but not very thoughtful management graduates might go fort armed with this threshold jargon to make a big mess of auditing, altering, and failing to properly implement process changes. There’s really no anchor in rationality, evaluation of separate circumstances by humanist concern for consequences, nor even of sufficient customer focus to really lend credibility to the argument in the lecture and readings that process management is all about creating value for the end customer.

In fact, we are all subject to so many badly thought out processes, or others that simply insult us by forcing on us systems and hurdles we do not ask for or desire, that blithe arguments about creating value are just not convincing.

In that vein, however, and to Hammer’s credit, he did caution about placing too much faith in IT systems as the mainstays of process automation or governance. He did not explicitly mention it, but there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of inexperienced process designers and managers creating monstrous anti-processes just to suit the capabilities of available software instead of insisting that software suits rationally devised processes.

The never ending customisation of SAP and SharePoint are good examples of how supposedly purpose-built business applications actually have no inbuilt business logic that doesn’t need massive reconfiguration for even middle level administrative organisations, let alone entrepreneurial or innovative organisations.

It will be interesting how this unit develops over the coming weeks with these fundamental, gaping holes in its foundations.


Dumas, M., La Rosa, M., Mendling, J., & Reijers, H. A. (2013). Fundamentals of Business Process Management. New York: Springer.

Hammer, M. (1990). Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate. Harvard Business Review, 68(4), 104-112.

Hammer, M. (2015). What is Business Process Management? In J. von Brocke & M. Rosemann (Eds.), Handbook on Business Process Management 1 (2nd ed.) (pp. 3-16). New York: Springer.

Ouyang, C (2015). IFN515 Fundamentals of Business Process Management: Lecture 1. (‘Introduction to BPM’, 24 February).