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The involvement of those pesky, chaotic humans in process improvement projects

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.

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  • I really liked your perspective on this.

    The inherent problem with modelling is that you can only optimize it for a point in time or at best for a short period in time. After that, other dependencies will make it in-efficient and you have to work on optimizing it again. If you have to keep reworking in this fashion in a complex process - there is also the risk that at some point your cost of rework is greater than the value generated by the change.

    So what can we do about it? Application vendors can probably do things to make it easier to have version control, and better IDEs to quickly make changes. But this solves only a small piece of the puzzle. How do we do the equivalent stuff for the process itself?

    I have to think some more about this topic - it holds a lot of interest for me.

    • It is not the only the need to look at change - the constantly evolution of the process itself - but also to realize that it might be possible or desirable to capture everything. It is the grey zone at the edges that when hazy provide the opportunity for involved individuals to make rapid decisions on their own - an innovative potential that is critical in today's world of economic turmoil.

      I also find the topic interesting - I'll be looking for your blogs on the topic.


  • Great Blog, thanks a lot Richard!
    Really liked the riverbed analogy, too often processes are designed too narrow so that all the water flows exactly in the right direction, but the risk is, that we introduce bottlenecks through too tight and narrow process definitions with no room for creative cross-boundary fertilization and value generation.
    The Harvard Business Review has recently published an article called "When Should a Process Be Art, Not Science", you can find it here, at least the first part of it:
  • This is one of the most entertaining, and informative articles that I've read lately.  I hadn't thought of myself as a therapist, but I do sometimes play that mediator between the business and it's requirements (or how they verbalized their requiremetns) and the IT group who have to interpret and implement a solution they know won't every 100%.   It's that marriage always on the brink of divorce. 

    I would be interested in your thoughts on a good technique for 'getting to the real requirements'.   I have been most successful when I drive to the 'outcome' for each process, whether it's a KPI or preformance improvements, etc.   When all parties agree on the outcome, the solution (which is the marriage of the process and supporting technology) is easier to define.   A three dimensional or layered view of the process is also critical (resources, technologies, organizations, controls, etc.) when these items are included in the interview, the process solution definition begins to include the complexity which supports the flexibility required to allow for the process to support changes are they arrise.

    • I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. I liked writing it as well.

      Regarding the "real requirements" - I'd question the idea of being able to capture everything or maybe the desirability of capturing everything. The big question is "when do I know that I've captured enough". I don't have the answer - I think this is process-dependent.


  • Nice blog, Richard. 

    I have to confess that I am part of the problem... When I see "rules" (which I'd argue are the flood control measures at the edges of the riverbed you describe), one of my first instincts is to evaluate whether they make sense to me, whether they apply to me, and even if they do, whether I will follow them or consciously "bend" them.  I don't like to be controlled unless I see direct benefit.  In some cases this can be bad (check my record of speeding tickets because I've determined that speed limits do not apply to me), and in some cases this can be a good trait (most of my work life is spent "managing by exception" or attempting to forge new territory by innovating - which, by definition, does not fit the accepted practices and processes, but must be mindful of the legal / ethical / other boundaries). 

    This is an interesting line of thought...

    Mark Yolton

    • As you suggest, we are all part of the problem. None of like having our ability to make decisions taken away from us.

      The most important thing is that we realize the difficulty or perhaps impossibility - of creating / defining processes that fit all users. We (as BPXs) are not omnipotent beings that know everything - rather than attempting to create standardized processes that contain no flexibility it would be a lot more efficient to use broader brush strokes that leave parts of the canvas open for users to define their own paths.


  • This is an interesting concept that the BPX should narrow the field over which a process may flow, but not hone it to a fine line, which would stifle innovation (and would not be practically possible anyway). 

    This reminds me of one of the things that Jane Jacobs wrote in The Economy of Cities.  She compared two British cities (Birmingham and some other one—sorry I can’t remember and I’m too lazy to look it up at the time being) several decades ago.  One had highly efficient, highly refined processes in one single industry, but they were the world leaders in it.  The other city had small, inefficient processes and businesses.  At the outset the city with a single industry was very highly regarded in the world which the other was not even on the map, so to speak.  The inefficiency and fragmented nature of the second city, however, allowed it to develop countless offshoots of technology and innovation and eventually surpass the size and output of the single industry city. 

    Basically, what I’m trying to get at here is that I agree with the author.  “Mental elbow room” among the workers could be a good thing because it keeps the mind engaged and will likely lead to suggestions for improvements in processes that might not have come about otherwise.

    Kurt Zschietzschmann