This morning as I was taking the kids to school and having to deal with the normal morning chaos, I started to think about how I might improve this activity. I started to initiate a mini process improvement project. I thought about the importance of rituals and structure to make this activity predictable and thus, less stressful. I soon realized that this restructuring might be difficult based primarily on the capricious nature of the children themselves. I could introduce a certain structure (get up earlier, go to sleep in their clothes for the next day, etc.) but somehow I don’t think I would ever be able to achieve a perfect “process”.
Note: OK. Some might say “Are you crazy? Your private life isn’t work – different rules apply.” Obviously, you are still the same person irregardless of whether you sit in your office or in your living room. As much as the desire may exist to separate the two, the two areas influence each other and, irregardless of how hard we try, ideas/experiences from one area appear magically in the other. There is a certain degree of “bleed” between the two.
Somehow, this line of thought reminded me of some of the blogs that I had been reading on SDN concerning business process improvement. There is often an assumption that the definition of a process with all its steps and involved roles is the primary goal of a business process expert (BPX). Definition is equated with control and more control is associated with more value. There is the assumption that defining a process in its entirety leads automatically to the ability to control it. A totally modeled process- one in which all aspects and possible variations are defined – would be “perfection”.
I admit – that from the corporate perspective- that a totally controlled process would be desirable inasmuch as it can be easily measured and repeated. These characteristics in an enterprise are critical to assure that a structure exists so that other processes and the organization itself can run smoothly.
My question is whether this goal is realistic or not. Not desirable but realistic. In the organizational context, humans are rightly viewed as something inherently chaotic; thus, their behavior must be guided in an optimal manner. “Optimal” here is a subjective term that probably reflects the perspective of the corporation and may or may not be in synch with that of those involved in a process. Thus, individuals are placed in a process corset to control them. Their chaotic/unpredictable tendencies are somehow suppressed for the good of the organization.
Of course, some might say that processes that don’t involve humans (for example, those used in back-end workflows – XI-based, etc.) are inherently more predictable. Through the use of exception handling in such process environments, we attempt to deal with this unpredictability. It is highly unlikely, however, that all likely possibilities can be captured.
BPX as Therapist
The role of the BPX usually involves talking to the individuals directly involved a process as well as domain experts to gain knowledge about the process in order to improve it. But can BPXs really capture the entire spectrum of the attitudes that these individuals have toward the process. There is a subjective – perhaps, emotional – interpretation of the process that is difficult to model but critical to understand in order to create processes that are accepted by those involved in them.
Should these attitudes be accommodated by the BPX? Last year, Owen Pettiford, myself and other members of the BPX Community created the BPX Community Project about a fictional process improvement project. One of my favorite lines from this project is where the BPX says ” I’m less expensive than a business therapist. Says to himself: “The BPX as Corporate shrink…I can feel a blog coming on” My therapy is a cross between Freudian and Agassian Therapy. „ The quote always resonated with me, because it stressed the importance of a BPX being to able to see a process from more than just a technological perspective.
Some might say that humans need structure in order to deal with the chaos of our lives. Highly structured processes -rituals – provide a foundation that helps us deal with the inherent unpredictability of life. Too much structure, however, can be seen as threatening and restrictive. Although I need a few processes in my corporate life, I don’t want perfectly-defined processes covering every aspect. Otherwise I would have no freedom to make decisions that are predefined / preselected. The question is how to decide what processes should be institutionalized and to what degree they should be structured – what should remain in the scope of the individual employee to decide.
Now, some might say I’m just describing process evolution or improvement as a process develops over time. I’m talking about something a little different. At any particular point in the lifecycle of a process – an abstract process not an instance of a process, there should multiples paths to the goal that is the fundamental motivation behind this process.
I recently had a long chat with Sigurd Rinde about processes where we talked about the idea of a process as a riverbed. A river flows in one direction but within this river, there is a certain degree of flexibility – deviation is allowed as long as the river as a whole doesn’t go over the banks. Flood control creates boundaries over which the water can’t flow. Within these boundaries, the water can flow wherever it wishes. The job of the BPX should not be to define a single process but rather to define these boundaries in which a process must be performed. This leaves room for individuals to define their own processes – to be innovative to what ever degree is necessary or desired.
This perspective tries to combine the needs of the organization with those of the individual in that organization. Let’s be honest with one another, is it really possible to define a process in all its facets? Despite our attempts to do so, each individual that plays a role in a process and adds his/her own particular flavor to their involvement. We as BPXs must accept the fact that a process can not be 100% modeled. Some degree of unpredictability (chaos!) will always exist and can not be captured.
As BPXs, we must become aware that our processes don’t exist in isolation and live in an environment that is constantly changing. Indeed, we must accept the fact that processes themselves aren’t static but are constantly evolving – irregardless of whether the changes are visible to the organization, are captured / documented or conducive to increasing efficiency.
In my The Role of Social Networks in Process Evolution, I set out to describe possible usages of social media as a way to capture this process-related knowledge. Through new technology, the BPX could act as an evangelist in the organization rather than as an expert who stays in his/her ivory tower and dictates change from above. This realization is associated with the necessity of providing guidance without control. Flexibility, of course, leads to a certain degree of chaos / unpredictability in processes but is much more in tune to the inherent individualism and need for freedom of those involved in the process. The ability to accommodate individual diversity without sacrificing the greater organizational goals is one of the greatest challenges that the BPX must face on a daily basis.
As I’ve learned from my kids and my attempts to conduct mini process improvement “projects” with them, there is a certain resistance in us all to processes that don’t give us room to breath – don’t provide us with the means to influence the environments in which we exist. Providing guidance / boundaries rather than dictating concrete paths is the sign of a good parent as well as a successful BPX.