At first sight, the task appears easy: capture the business processes, visualize them in an easy to understand form and use them as a basis for quality or efficiency improvement projects. This goal may seem trivial to a rationally thinking consultant. Especially in larger organizations, we frequently see action teams attempting to capture and model the “as-is” processes or to create “comprehensive” and “enterprise-wide” process models.
The following simple procedure appears simple and logical:
- Define a process model structure with several detail levels (from rough to fine)
- Interview the business experts within the target organization and collect the results: work steps, responsibilities, work products
- Review all partial results
- Compile all parts to an overall model and, again, conduct a comprehensive review
- Consolidate the results in a single, integrated model and establish them as the obligatory business processes. Finished!
A brave new world! However, let’s take a closer look at these measures.
1. Define a process model structure with several detail levels (from rough to fine)
In contrast to software design, where the modeling language UML is the state-of-the-art notation, there is no industry standard for process modeling. No catalog of criteria exists that would help determine what to put on the first, second, third, etc. process level. Under each of these levels, one can imagine virtually anything. Even worse: the borders between a process of the 2nd and a sub-process of the 3rd are diffuse. In a large process, a partial work sequence appears as a sub-process, while in a smaller process stepping one level down might appear unnecessary for the very same sequence. Consequently, the choice of the process level granularity seems arbitrary.
2. Interview the business experts within the target organization and collect the results.
The experts may be good at their actual job. However, they are usually not as good as insufficiently describing their work. The results rarely fully correspond with reality.
3. Review all partial results.
How much insider knowledge about the target organization does the process designer need to eliminate redundancies and discover gaps? And will a review with the experts actually unveil all weaknesses of the process model? Often, the reviewer doesn’t have the experience needed to cope with the review tasks.
4. Compile all parts to an overall model and, again, conduct a comprehensive review.
The overall view is afflicted with the same weaknesses as the sub-processes. Additionally, the reviewers’ abstraction ability varies widely.
5. Consolidate the results in a single, integrated model and establish them as the obligatory business processes.
It is to be clarified whether the senior management is really ready to commit the process as “valid and obligatory.” In many cases, it is not.
Consider the warning signs.
These challenges are often extended by more frightening scenarios, for example:
- The process analysis is conducted while downsizing or announcement is ongoing. In this case, the support on the part of the experts will be fragile.
- If the main goal is to obtain some kind of a formal certificate (ISO 9000 or CMMI appraisal) e.g. for marketing purposes, the consultant should think twice before tackling this task.
- In an immature organization, processes are very hard to analyze. Informal communication paths are pervasive and implicitly established. Risky “short-cuts” in organizational structure are hard to manage. An attempt to capture all those alternatives makes the process model useless at best and misleading at worst.
Probably the most important and most frequently overseen problem, however, is whether the experts are actually willing to disclose all details of their daily work to the process analyst. This “hidden” know-how of important business processes is frequently regarded as part of the personal, strategic advantage. The larger an organization, the more likely the experts would prefer to keep their important insider knowledge to themselves. In reality, the employees of large companies spend a significant part of their working time securing their own position and extensively networking for their own career purposes. These activities (call it “social efforts” or “personal politics”) can completely fill up the schedule.