Review: The Process Improvement Handbook

Don’t be misled by the modest title. In ‘The Process Improvement Handbook’, Tristan Boutros and Tim Purdie  are attempting something very ambitious. They want to found the Process Improvement discipline.

From their Process Improvement manifesto to the detail of their Process Improvement methodology, they attempt to rise above the ideological fray, to transcend the conflicting orthodoxies and to propose a new framework and an ‘all-encompassing guide’ for Process Improvement professionals.

Lamenting the manifold ways in which Process Improvement typically underperforms, or outright fails, they set out to re-cast Process Improvement so that it is ‘an enabler and not a hindrance’:

“With the huge growth in spending on Process Improvement by enterprises and the strong evidence that significant investment in this domain can lead to costs savings and better business decision-making, the time has come to make the Process Improvement discipline professional.”

You might ask whether the world needs another Process Improvement (PI) methodology. What’s appealing here is that Boutros and Purdie freely take the best PI ideas, strip away most of their accompanying heritage and then put them through the mincer to create their proposed approach. It’s a mash up which will have the purists running for the hills.  There are acknowledgements as appropriate but the book seems to want to shake off the dust of much of the current sterile debates and head for the high ground. It’s indicative perhaps that neither the Appendix on Acronyms nor the Glossary include any reference to ‘BPM’ or ‘BPMN’.

What gives this credibility is that the authors are senior sleeves-rolled-up practitioners with decades of experience in Lean Six Sigma, Scrum and Rummler-Brache at some very large organizations.  Their approach is also endorsed by some senior people at iGrafx, OpenText and IBM.

There’s a lot to like. It certainly delivers on the book’s subtitle ‘A Blueprint for Managing Change and Increasing Organizational Performance’.  It’s a practical soup-to-nuts exposition that includes role descriptions, values, workshop agendas, organizational structures and PI tools and techniques – and all complete with templates which practitioners will find useful.

In many ways, it’s a fully-baked solution, which will suit a lot of PI teams and organizations.  It’s a bit rigid but it’s a ‘good enough’ PI approach for many purposes.  Most though will want to take the authors’ advice to see it as a collection of ‘PI thinking tools’ and flex their prescription to fit their own circumstances.

Every reader is going to have reservations that reflect where they come from on the PI spectrum. For me, it seems that there’s a hazy overlap between the authors’ definition of a Process-Oriented Architecture (POA), which “focuses on the relationships of all structures, processes, activities, information, people, goals and other resources of an organization” and the Process Ecosystem, which “also links strategic goals to the necessary processes… and provides centralized visibility of any related process elements such as business rules, KPIs…”.

The authors’ strategic objective is right: to create “a communications bridge among senior business leaders, business operators and PI professionals” characterized by “integrated, cross-functional views”. I’m just not convinced that the POA and the Process Ecosystem shouldn’t be seen as one.

I like the idea of bringing together all the various tribes to found a PI discipline that is fit for 21st century purpose.  But I’m also hesitant about the ways in which the authors distinguish between PI and the business. It may be the norm right now but aren’t organizations where PI is far more embedded in the line – Nestlé’s Continuous Excellence concept, for instance – simply more advanced?

Boutros and Purdie have done a good job in condensing a lot of wisdom into a fresh and useful manual for PI practitioners.  It’s a new synthesis. It takes us forward and may help to break the PI hype cycle (in which the Six Sigma star rose, as the BPR star fell below the horizon, only to be superceded by the rapid ascent of Lean, which seems now to be losing some of its former brilliance…).

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