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Business Process Improvement – Avoiding the Technology Trap

Originally published 15 March 2012

Processes are the power house of any business. They describe how a business sets about delivering value to its customers in the form of products or services. Put simply, they articulate how a business does what it does. It almost goes without saying, therefore, that these processes are of fundamental importance to the business, and need to be managed and exploited just like any other corporate asset.

But processes don’t operate in a vacuum; they come together with people, information, technology and the working environment to deliver that value. Sadly however, many business process improvement (BPI) initiatives fail to consider the full context within which the process operates – the scope for many initiatives is restricted to technology-led workflow design and automation. It’s no wonder then that many businesses continue to have their fingers burned by BPI initiatives that either have unexpected side-effects, or fail to deliver the promised ROI.

The Pitfalls of Technology-Led BPI

As far back as 1990, Michael Hammer noted [in his paper entitled Re-engineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate – Harvard Business Review] that many companies weren’t seeing the dramatic improvements in process performance that they expected – largely because they were using technology to simply automate old ways of doing business.  More than twenty years later how little has changed? The 2011 Gartner BPM Hype Cycle shows both business process management (BPM) as a discipline and business process management suites sliding rapidly from the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” toward the “Trough of Disillusionment”.

Despite BPM being a business-led management discipline, many BPM initiatives continue to fall into the trap of being technology-led. These technology-led initiatives are invariably driven by improvement methodologies touted by tools vendors, eager to sell a business process management suite (BPMS) as the cure to all ills. Such methodologies share a similar approach: model the existing (as-is) workflow, design an improved (to-be) workflow and then automate the workflow to some degree using a BPMS. The result is that many process improvement initiatives restrict their attention to workflow design and automation as the only enablers for process improvement, whilst ignoring other potentially more effective change agents.

The Bigger Picture

As the business environment changes, companies need to find new ways of doing things in order to maintain competitive advantage. Simply automating the old ways of doing things is just never enough. As well as different processes, the brave new world may need new skills, a different shaped workforce, changes in location or the working environment, new types of information, new ways of consuming existing information, new ways of measuring and rewarding performance and yes – new technology.

Technology-led initiatives will continue to be partially effective at best. Any comprehensive process improvement initiative must consider the bigger picture and look to exploit the full set of enablers for process improvement.

Enablers for Process Improvement

Process enablers are factors, under the control of the business, which can be adjusted to improve process performance. These are the strings that can be manipulated by the business, guided by the business process management consultant, to improve a process: making it faster, cheaper or improving the quality of the end product or service.
Successful process improvement initiatives give full and careful consideration to each of these enablers before recommending a roadmap of changes to improve process performance.

Figure 1: Enablers for Process Improvement

Workflow Design – Workflow is the sequence of activities, decisions and handoffs carried out by the process participants between the initial event and the final result. By modelling the workflow, we can highlight any unnecessary process participants, delays or bottlenecks, processes that are too sequential, duplicate activities or activities that add little or no value.

Policies and Rules – These are the rules and policies established by the enterprise to guide or constrain business processes, as well as applicable laws and regulations. Considering Polices and Rules will highlight out-of-date policies or numerical limits, excessive review or approval steps.

Human Resources – The knowledge, skills and experience of the workforce, training, organizational structure and job definitions. A process requires the right people in the right job with the right skills. Ensure roles are matched to the value of tasks. Ensure staff are empowered and trained to perform tasks and make decisions.

Motivations and Measures – These are the explicit and implicit reward systems of the organization that are concerned with how people, organizations and processes are measured and assessed, and the associated consequences (either reward or punishment). Ensure measures are aligned with business goals, are customer focused and drive appropriate behaviour. Measure end-to-end processes rather than individual tasks or activities.

Information Availability and Quality – Activities consume and produce information. Process and information are therefore intrinsically linked. Each participant must have the right information available to them at the right time to perform their assigned activities effectively. Information must be accessible, accurate, current and complete. This may involve identifying and eliminating information silos using Data Virtualisation, or using data quality management techniques to profile, cleanse, enhance and enrich information that supports the process. Successful BPM requires successful information management.

Information Mechanisms – Information must be presented or captured in a way that supports the effective execution of the activity at hand. Consider form design and pre-population of form fields. Consider the use of dashboards and reports or geospatial displays for situational awareness.

Orchestration – Business process management suite (BPMS) technology can improve process performance by orchestrating or managing workflow. Use business activity monitoring (BAM) technology to monitor activities and transactions.

Activity Support – Technology can be used for supporting tasks, capturing or presenting information, or by automating steps within the workflow. EAI/EII technology integrates applications and data. Use technology to automate activities, support self-service or facilitate data capture (e.g., use of barcode readers).

Facilities – The workplace design and physical infrastructure such as equipment, furniture, lighting, air quality and ambient noise. Watch for layouts that impede the flow of people or material, or are not conducive to team working.

Location – The location at which activities are performed. Efficiencies can be realized by co-locating process participants that have frequent handoffs.

Sustained and continuous process improvement will also require process ownership and governance. A process owner must be identified, responsible for ensuring that the process performs as well as possible. They must have responsibility and authority for an end-to-end process across an organisation, and be accountable for the effective delivery of the process outputs. Identify, establish and empower process owners. Establish governance processes and structures for process measurement, issue resolution and continuous process improvement. These same governance structures ensure that the processes evolve and adapt to changes in the business environment, enabling the business to maintain its competitive advantage.

Implementing Business-Led BPI

By now, alarm bells should start ringing if your BPM initiatives are being driven and managed by your IT function. BPM is a business-led management discipline and may require changes to people, process, information and the working environment in addition to the effective use of technology in order to maximise process performance. An unambiguous statement of the business goals and objectives is required that defines what success will look like in terms of business outcomes. A strong, urgent and compelling case for action is required to ensure executive buy-in. And finally, strong business leadership will be required to implement the changes.

Ensure you adopt a business-led approach to process improvement, such as the IPL BPI Methodology, where all process enablers are given full and thorough consideration. Once issues have been identified with the existing processes, suggested improvements can be considered in turn. Each improvement must be assessed against each of the process enablers, to consider what changes are required to people, process, information, technology and the environment to implement the suggested improvement, while stopping to consider any potential side-effects of the change.

Finally, once improvements have been identified, a roadmap can be established to not only implement the changes, but also to establish the ownership and governance structures required to ensure that the effectiveness of the process can be continuously measured and improved over time, and can adapt to changes in the business environment.

SOURCE: Business Process Improvement – Avoiding the Technology Trap

  • Richard ShreeveRichard Shreeve
    Richard is a Principal Business Consultant at IPL, a leading UK IT services company specializing in the delivery of intelligent business solutions. He has more than 20 years experience spent in a variety of senior roles working at a number of leading organizations including BP, EADS, HBOS and Orange. Experienced in the fields of enterprise architecture, BPM, information management and requirements engineering, Richard has contributed to the success of many high profile projects across a variety of sectors including manufacturing, financial services, telecoms and emergency services. He can be reached at richard.shreeve@ipl.com.



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