Is BPM failing?

People BPMLarge companies have invested billions in software, in process excellence teams and in consulting to realize the dream of the process driven company. After storing thousands of complex process diagrams in databases it is time to stop and think. What happened and did it change people’s behaviors?

To recap for the uninitiated “Business Process Management”, or BPM, is a management discipline that, simply put, seeks to link the company’s activities together across the value chain, turn them into good working routines and thereby enable, for example, improved customer experiences and savings. So far so good. If the vision is sound then the problem must be with the approach to realizing it.

The truth about the BPM industry and its approach
Today, the BPM market consists of hundreds of software vendors and major consulting firms. It is dominated by ERP giants like SAP, IBM, Accenture and Oracle along with dozens of medium-sized American, British and German companies. Major BPM vendors have invested millions in developing advanced solutions to design processes and training thousands of specialist consultants that are employed to define, optimize and implement processes at customer sites.

It all seems to evolve around modelling and diagramming
Until now the primary driver behind the BPM market has been the ability to model workflows that are perfect for use in the roll-out of large enterprise software systems. This enterprise software is developed and implemented by many of the same companies that deliver and advise on BPM. The major software vendors understand the importance of making their software flexible and linked to processes. From what I understand from reading a lot sales material from these vendors, their premise often is that BPM is a software modeling discipline that makes it possible to translate business requirements to system requirements. Sure, employees are mentioned at times but they’re talking automation.

“Best practices” are hard to argue against
The most common BPM approach is to identify and automate ideal working practices of the company or industry, the so-called “best practices”. Once best practices have been captured process excellence teams then disseminate them as work standards throughout the company. This happens through so-called “super-users” that are trained to find their ways through the enterprise system and calm down their colleagues. The ideal is a maximum degree of automation and a minimal degree of manual handling of employees.

It can deliver value for mature, high frequency processes
When the mission is successful, the result can be a large increase in productivity and quality. At the same time it leverages systems investment across the enterprise. Unfortunately, this success can only happen to a small part of the company’s business processes. The vast majority of processes are too manual, fluent and immature for this approach. Yet the approach seems to have become synonymous with the process-driven company. So why doesn’ this approach work for processes that mostly consist of manual activities?

Process designs become too complex for employees
The conventional BPM approach requires the ability to deal with all the deviations and exceptions that process design encounters. Otherwise the processes cannot be automated. In larger companies this quickly leads to a very high level of complexity. Much of this complexity is necessary to embrace when it comes to process automation but is has significant drawbacks when it comes to manual activities.

To handle this complexity BPM vendor have developed some sophisticated “support tools”. These tools are for the few, inaugurated people to work with and understand. As an example, it requires a higher education, several weeks of training and years of experience to design processes that correctly use the Business Process Model and Notations (BPMN) standard’s 55 attributes. On top of this, the design is done through a BPM tool that looks like something which is made for programming. The result is that process work has become a domain reserved for experts that join other experts in so-called “Process Excellence Centers”. In larger companies, they are typically organized as support functions inside the HQ. These experts then work closely with other experts to implement business systems.

In this world process design aims to deliver perfection. The more resources experts have available, the longer time the design work takes. With a meticulousness as if they were planning the moon landing every eventuality is incorporated into business processes. This way you need a process hierarchy that is 4-8 levels deep to describe all of a company’s operating activities. In large companies, this can be up to 1.500 processes that are mapped and described systematically (I’m thinking of Chevron, as presented by Jim Boots).

“The business” is too busy to get properly involved
In order to involve “the business” then management selects key employees. They are invited to interviews and workshops. Here they are asked to describe their actual actions and provide input to the work of the experts. In reality, the real subject matter experts are rarely available for these workshops. The smart regional manager often assigns the employees who can most easily find the time for servicing corporate staff. When the involvement is successful then it results in rationalizations of daily work routines so these may appear more sensible than they often are in practice. Nobody wants to defend imperfect current practices.

When the great process mapping project is completed – an effort which rarely takes less than 3-6 months – then the executive team has to approve the new processes. The processes now perfectly reflect theoretical best practice and are very hard to disagree on. They get approved.

When the industry experts move on, clients are left confused
From then on, employees are trained in the use of processes and related systems. Excellence teams often expect them to connect their present – partly unconscious – routines with expert abstractions about the perfect workflow (a process diagram) and perhaps with the use of a new IT system. Super-users are there to guide. Unfortunately, the result is often that people end up supporting systems, rather than the other way around.

In other words, the interaction between competent people, processes, systems and other resources of the company have been forgotten in the ambition to design the perfect processes and systems.

The low hanging fruits have already been harvested
The fact remains that larger companies over the decades has invested heavily in that little portion of their processes that can be automated, but often are remote from their employees’ and customers’ daily lives. Some investments have been profitable, but much has been wasted. At the same time, companies have under-invested in the majority of fluid and manual processes and activities that take our time and energy as employees and customers. They have simply not been good business cases for automation.

The need for new approaches should be obvious. The smart customers seem to be getting this since the share of executives that find their BPM efforts successful has dropped from 69% in 2009 to 52% in 2013 (PEX’ survey, 2013)

Where do we go from here?
I think it is time to rethink BPM. It’s time to bring back the dying concept of “Social BPM.” Social BPM has been hijacked as meaning the “sprinkling of social features on complex, system-centric software”. “Social” comes before BPM for a reason. It’s about putting people first. I will argue for a new beginning for social BPM in a coming post.

Until then your views are most welcome. Am I being too harsh? I’m certainly generalizing. But my generalizations are based on dozens of experiences and conversations with real employees and leaders that are at the receiving end of the BPM industry’s approach. These people are left to clean up the mess.

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By Søren Pommer @ gluu | December 4, 2013

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