Contemporary business process management (BPM) practices incorporate the ‘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 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 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 Deming continuous improvement cycle is, today, fundamental to lifecycles in many areas, including software development, project management, and BPM.
The diagram below is my visualization of the BPM lifecycle.
The diagram illustrates the various stages in the lifecycle:
- Identify and document the process with fresh eyes, not relying on past work in that area;
- Analyse the process for efficiency and effectiveness in meeting its intended purposes;
- Re-design the process to incorporate improvements, or to start afresh with a completely new design;
- Deploy the improved or new process, using change management disciplines to plan and manage deployment;
- Monitor and control the new process to spot deficiencies or misalignments with other processes; and
- Continue the cycle to maintain a continuous improvement focus.
The outer circle in the diagram illustrates activities and ‘products’ falling out of the main lifecycle phases:
- Identifying and documenting the process should include a consideration of how it fits into an overall process architecture—the interrelationship between all processes;
- Process analysis should yield a documented as-is process model as a benchmark and aid in understanding how improvements might be made;
- Improvement design might incorporate complementary techniques, such as six sigma waste reduction and efficiency gains;
- A finished re-design should yield a documented to-be process model to help in understanding the key changes and any change management steps that might be necessary;
- For major process re-design, software can be used to test its proper functioning under various use-case tests before deploying changes, to avoid unforeseen and costly mistakes; and
- Deployment of process improvements can be staggered as incremental changes to minimize impact on other processes and on staff who may need to change the way they do things.
How I can help
Sometimes your own staff may be so close to the way they do things they can no longer step back to gain an objective overview of possible differences between what they think they are achieving and what they are really achieving.
An outsider might be better placed to put your processes under a magnifying glass to identify peculiarities, flaws, and inconsistencies that could be lost in the daily business of just getting on with the job.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the BPM lifecycle is innovation. This goes beyond improvements to existing ways of doing things, involving a creative process to imagining what might be possible by doing things entirely differently.
That kind of ‘imagineering’ requires a big step back, to link up strategic goals with overall enterprise and process architecture, envisaging entirely new ways of thinking about what people do, and why, to carry out your daily business.
Quite often a fresh perspective is crucial in moving away from ‘we’ve always done it this way’ to ‘maybe a new way is better’.
Risks for inexperienced players
The most serious shortcoming in any BPM project can be too tight a focus on process only, leading some analysts to think of people only as replaceable quanta rather than for the qualitative skills and insights they add—the hard to quantify value-add they bring to your activities.
Getting the most out of your processes shouldn’t just be how to reduce payroll by automating what used to be done by people. Some thought ought to be given to how your people can still add value after their workload is lightened by automation. Unfortunately, most analysts are not trained in how to do that.
I never lose sight of the human dimension in business processes and value-added products and services. Sometimes your people are more important to the overall outcome than process improvements in themselves.
To make sure you don’t end up improving a process only to lose human assets, especially as they concern the ‘corporate memory’ necessary for business continuity, you might be best served by looking for a consultant like me, with a broader outlook than just process improvement models and metrics. 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.