The Noble Profession Of Process Excellence

th3LS50DQUFlourishing is a remarkable book, and rather heartwarming for those toiling in the vineyard of process excellence.

Remarkable because it’s a radical critique of sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility programmes – and, more widely, of 21st century capitalism – co-authored by two US business school professors and published by Stanford University.

The book is a set of interviews around eight papers by John Ehrenfeld, former Director of the MIT Program on Technology, Business and Environment and still, in retirement, a Senior Research Scholar at Yale. The interviewer is Andrew Hoffmann, Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan.

In essence, Dr Ehrenfeld believes that our current understanding of sustainability, and its promise of a sustainable future, is a delusion:

“Hybrid cars, LED light bulbs, wind farms and green buildings, these are all just the trappings that convince us that we are doing something when in fact we are fooling ourselves, and making things worse….Reducing unsustainability, although critical, will not create sustainability.”

He proposes instead a wider, richer definition: “Sustainability-as-flourishing”. “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on Earth forever.”  It’s a definition that includes issues of justice, inequality, wellbeing and social cohesion – with implications for the individual and the community, for every organization and institution.

His analysis is uncompromising: “Growthism is our religion and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is our god”. We neglect human well-being and focus overwhelmingly on material goals – “Our metrics of success are now principally measured in material terms” – so that “in making ourselves rich, we are making ourselves existentially and psychologically poor”.  He asks heretical questions about the value of corporate sustainability measures:

“Sustainability is a systems property. You don’t measure sustainability; it’s only a possibility. You strive to attain it. No single company is going to be able to measure their specific contribution to sustainability. What’s important is whether they are promoting a culture of flourishing or not. Are they structuring their company to promote fairness, wellness, equality, ecosystem health and community cohesion?”

His conclusions are surprising. Sustainability-as-flourishing, he says, requires the re-conceptualization of our lives around two big ideas. We need to shift our dominant mindsets from Having to Being, from Needing to Caring.  We need to shift from a dominant materialistic mindset to spirituality and love: “Sustainability-as-flourishing without love is not possible”.

Continue reading

Scaling Up Excellence

How’s your process excellence initiative going? Frustration and confusion everywhere, pummelled by unpredictable and unpleasant events, the stench of failure in the air?  So far so good, then. That’s according to Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao, Stanford professors whose research convinces them that ‘organizations that scale well are filled with people who talk and act as if they are in the middle of a manageable mess’.

Scaling is fraught with risks and uncertainties. Even the best leaders and teams recognise that muddling through can be inevitable, sometimes for months, while searching for the best way forward. Scaling stars have grit. ‘It’s not simply a marathon. It’s like running a long race where you don’t know the right path, often what seems like the right path turns out to be the wrong one, and you don’t know how long the race will last, where or how it will end, or where the finish line is located’.

It’s refreshingly candid advice, and Scaling Up Excellence is full of it.  On a seven year journey that started with a Stanford management education program on ‘Customer-Focused Innovation’, Sutton and Rao set out to explore The Problem of More:

“Executives could always point to pockets in their organizations where people were doing a great job of uncovering and meeting customer needs. There was always some excellence – there just wasn’t enough of it. What drove them crazy, kept them up at night, and devoured their weekdays was the difficulty of spreading that excellence to more people and more places. They also emphasized that the Problem of More (which they often called “scaling” or “scaling up”) wasn’t limited to building customer-focused organizations; it was a barrier to spreading excellence of every stripe.”

Scaling Up Excellence is a thoughtful, easy-to-read and intensely practical book about successful business transformation and innovation: how to start it, lead it, nurture it and sustain it. Continue reading

Sustainable Process Excellence? Hire A Showman

iStock_000019789823SmallMichael Fauscette has been setting out why, in the information age, making better decisions will drive the development of new operating models. It’s about moving, he has argued, from “make – sell” to “sense – respond” models which can leverage smart data (right information, right context, right person, right time and in a way that enables them to make the best decision).

Most recently, he’s looked at how you translate these ideas into reality. How would a business actually go about setting up and supporting both the culture and the technology infrastructure to support a “sense – respond” model? His answers (in full here) look at people, culture, process and tools.

As an aside, his observations re-confirm that enabling effective collaboration among all those involved in the design, approval and implementation of change requires a common language (which really has to be process, for reasons outlined here) and a common governance framework (which has to be a process management platform of some kind, for reasons set out here).

This stuff was high value anyway. In a more automated and decentralized world where agility, creativity and innovation are prized, a common language and a common governance framework for managing change are going to be vital. As in survival issues in the long run.

But he talks too – and this is really my point – about the increasingly strategic value of the content manager in a world where ‘information-sharing is power’, within the enterprise at least:

“In the old industrial model knowledge was considered a power base but in today’s connected and information overloaded environment that’s not practical or productive. Sharing information is the new power base. Content curators are essential to keeping the information flowing and helping it get to the right place in the organization.”

Which fits with my experience. Too often those responsible for building and maintaining a corporate process management platform (the ‘Process Center of Excellence Team’) see themselves as archivists and librarians (ie recorders of what should happen) rather than as real-time content curators and publishers (ie architects and advocates of a better way of working).

Now it’s true that many Process Centre of Excellence teams feel forced into a passive role by the low expectations of their peers and leaders. But without ongoing and imaginative promotion of the vision, without a continuing and creative focus on enhancing the user experience, without design thinking, energy levels drop and things go slowly downhill until… all you’re left with is just another rear-view quality system.

We’ve all seen it so many times.  People focus on tools and methodologies but sustainable success in building an enterprise platform for process excellence depends equally on pzazz and subtle showmanship.

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Business Process Management’s Lost Decade

What did we achieve in Business Process Management (BPM) in the last decade? Frankly, not nearly enough. And there has been enormous waste.

Arguably the single most important root cause has been confusion. We’ve been lacking a common vision and vocabulary, which may sound ethereal but has had significant real-world impact. So let me start by nailing my colours to the mast with a definition of BPM in the simplest possible terms.

If all work is process (an assertion which was the startpoint for the APQC’s ground-breaking 2004 report on Business Process Management and remains essentially true), then business process management is about enabling the organization to deliver effectively and efficiently, and to continuously improve its performance. It’s about what we do, how we do it, who’s responsible and how we can do it better.

It’s true that variants on this definition have been endorsed, to varying degrees, by analysts, commentators and standards bodies. The confusion that has cost us so dearly is in the detail.

A decade ago, BPM was hot. There was huge excitement. The Global Business Process Forum event in London in the summer of 2004 had a triumphant tone.  Howard Smith and Peter Fingar had just published BPM: The Third Wave (with a strap line “Don’t bridge the business-IT divide. Obliterate it!”) and set a course to a new way of doing business.

Smith and Fingar had made the right noises:

“While automation can be readily achieved with a raft of existing technologies, BPM has a wider meaning… Processes are the main intellectual property and competitive differentiator manifest in all business activity, and companies must treat them with a great degree of skill and care.”

“..there is only one solution, an agreed-upon universal language that unambiguously describes ‘what we do and how we do it’, and to which all can subscribe.”

The trouble was that all hopes were pinned on the success of the BPMN process notation (V1.0 of which was published by the OMG in 2004) as the enabler of a world of enterprise collaboration where modelling and execution were one (in the jargon of that time ‘the model is the process’).

It was a wrong turn.  You don’t need to read much of its 516-page spec to realize that BPMN could never have been a universal language. Business people, at least for a couple of generations, are not going to easily surrender to the complexity of BPMN’s swimlanes and pools, events and gateways.

BPMN has not delivered in practice because it can’t enable business engagement. Despite substantial spending,  ‘BPM projects’ have often delivered lacklustre returns re-igniting debates about whether ‘BPM is dead’. BPM veterans talk of the failure of the ‘model-driven panacea’.

But BPMN was flawed too in a more subtle way. Its perspective is that virtually all work can be automated; that it is simply a question of understanding the process and the rules. Which may be essentially true in the very long run but it’s a long way from where we are now. It was a perspective though that suited software vendors perfectly, enabling them to co-opt – others might say hi-jack – BPM as a cover to market smarter automation products.

Analysts and commentators struggled to coalesce these disparate threads into a common vision and understanding. Gartner tried from time to time to re-assert the idea that BPM is far more than simply automation. But progress in aligning perspectives has been limited and painfully slow.  Even Gartner’s iBPM (Intelligent BPM) concept launched last year is widely seen as just the expansion of automation to include analytics.

In short, we lost the idea that BPM provides an holistic framework for performance management. It became an IT thing, an automation initiative.

Does that matter? Yes, and in ways that count.

Let’s start with the humdrum waste. What today is considered ‘normal’ is in fact a hidden overhead of huge proportions.

Most process mapping is low value and oftentimes a completely wasted effort. And what we’re talking about here is a global industry. In London alone, I can show you floors of sharp-suited consultants busy creating process diagrams for clients who have no idea what they really need.  Even where those process models stop this side of fantasy, they are, in a fast-moving world, more perishable than sushi on a summer’s day. Sometimes barely a year passes before the next team of consultants is back in, re-doing essentially the same exercise. It’s an ATM for the Big 4.

It’s not fair simply to cast consultants as villains. Even organizations that eschew consultants struggle.  Typically they have a myriad departmental snapshots of some part of their processes, often overlapping or with barely concealed gaps, and rarely synchronized. Teams define ‘their’ processes in a variety of formats and tools. Governance is an afterthought but that doesn’t matter because no-one reads them anyway. And even where there is an enterprise-wide integrated and governed process architecture in place, it’s almost invariably in a technical language that meets the needs of only an Enterprise Architecture cognoscenti within IT.

It’s not just the waste. This dysfunctional mash up has other, far more serious, consequences for the bottom-line. Look into the root causes of IT failures, of compliance failures, of failed cost saving programmes, of outsourcing debacles, of unsustainable Lean Sigma initiatives – and you’ll find a process failure.

Even worse though, this confusion encouraged other groups to dissociate themselves from BPM almost entirely:

It allowed Six Sigma and Lean practitioners, for instance, to feel justified in remaining aloof, in denial that their initiatives are always going to be more successful and more sustainable in operating environments where processes are being managed effectively.

Operational Risk and Compliance teams might bow the knee before the idea of a universal approach to business process management, but have invested instead in GRC platform solutions which only tenuously connect risks and controls with live end-to-end operational processes.

Business Architecture and Enterprise Architecture groups have happily invested enormous sums in mapping and modelling processes in ways that were only loosely linked – if at all – to live end-to-end operational processes.

Business Transformation teams have defined Target Operating Models that are strangely disconnected from operational realities.

In the recent words of a client, whose experience is typical: “In our organization, responsibility for process excellence has no home. It bounces around between the SAP team, the Shared Services organization, the Automation team and Compliance.”

In short, we have progressed. There is mainstream recognition that process ‘matters’ in some vague  way. Process thinking is slowly becoming part of our everyday reality. But we absolutely haven’t covered ourselves in glory. We may talk about process as enterprise DNA but we treat it in an amazingly casual way.

iStock_000000552191SmallI’m optimistic though that we’re in a pupa stage (when the caterpillar turns to goo). Many cells die but the few remaining cells – the imaginal cells – build a completely new and totally different body.

I think we can embed process perspectives in organizational cultures in ways that will transform enterprise capabilities.  There’s a BPM butterfly going to emerge out of this chrysalis.

But if we want to accelerate its progress, then a clearer vision and a common vocabulary must be a sine qua non. After a decade of debilitating confusion, we need a fresh start, linguistically speaking.

I can see that there’s a strong case for writing off the term ‘BPM’ as beyond redemption, leaving it behind as our caterpillar phase.

My preference though is that we should retain ‘BPM’, confined to the spirit of its original holistic definition. In this sense…

BPM uses the language of process to enable the organization to deliver effectively and efficiently, and to continuously improve its performance.

BPM leverages process visualization to create a space where everyone across the enterprise – operations, compliance, IT, sourcing, risk management, finance – collaborates to deliver for customers and to continuously improve.

BPM makes crystal clear what we do, how we do it and who’s responsible.

BPM’s goal is to build a platform that enables effective collaboration across the enterprise.

Done well, the BPM platform is personalized, intuitive and engaging – and branded, perhaps as the ‘Business Operating System’ or the ‘Business Management System’.

It’s like the BPM platform is the double helix, upon which is written the precise genetic code of the entire enterprise, its Business Management System.

All of which is a long way from automation.

It’s true that there are some relatively simple and highly-automated businesses – some boutique outsourcers or monoline insurers, for example – where a BPMS (a workflow automation platform) can put its arms around virtually every task undertaken in the enterprise.  In these cases, perhaps, the model is the process.  Whatever – these cases do illustrate the convergence of BPM and automation.

The point is that these are rare exceptions. An IBM survey in 2010 reported that 75% of all activities in the enterprise are manual tasks. For most organizations, and for a long time to come, BPM and automation can usefully mean different things.

However we define things (and it really doesn’t matter as long as it’s clear and gains widespread acceptance), clarity matters now more than ever. As we’ll see, there is a confluence of forces that are set to drive process excellence up the strategic agenda for the next decade.

Soulful Operational Excellence

iStock_000023558527LargeIf Operational Excellence (OpEx) and Lean Sigma are too often associated with a sense of heartless oppression, what would be soulful OpEx be? Is there a recipe for a wholegrain honest-to-goodness OpEx that everyone can believe in?

I think so – and there’s a step that we could take to nudge it to become the new normal.

There’s a wide spectrum of definitions of Operational Excellence. Some are crude, defined simply in terms of resource efficiency and its impact on the bottom line. Others seem ethereal.  But many start by acknowledging that people aren’t simply just another resource, and that the means matter just as much as the ends. Continue reading

When Operational Excellence Is Bad Karma

iStock_000018852459SmallA slightly uncomfortable weekend with two family members whose work leaves them on the receiving end of ‘operational excellence’.  I drove home rehearsing again the morality of what I do.

Both have blue-collar jobs in household name organizations (with, I happen to know, substantial Lean and Six Sigma programmes).

One – I have to hide identities here, for obvious reasons – works in transport and logistics.  Over the last three years, his job has been relentlessly analysed and ‘optimised’.  He’s fit – a keen Sunday cyclist – but now he arrives home exhausted.  Every minute of his day is programmed, every capability fully stretched all the time. And there’s continual pressure to do unpaid overtime to get the work done.

That relative at least still has a full-time job. The other, who works in retail, was effectively forced to sign a ‘flexible’ contract, under which working hours are pretty much variable by the employer at will. So he might learn this afternoon that he has been given a four hour lunchtime shift tomorrow, only to be sent home at 12:30 if things are unexpectedly quiet.

I’m sure that the Lean Sigma teams driving these changes are proud of what they’ve achieved. This is operational excellence diligently honed to drive out every scintilla of waste.  There’s absolutely nothing left to squeeze.

I’m not claiming that Lean Sigma in the wrong hands is a tool for oppression (Discuss). But it seems to me that we need consensus on a richer definition of operational excellence, a less clinical framework in which success looks beyond simply the elimination of waste.

Both employers in this case – and these are middle-of-the-road organizations, far from unique – should be worrying about how to reconcile their cost-cutting achievements with their proud boasts about Corporate Social Responsibility.

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The Process Team Quietly Demolishing Silos

iStock_000002428072XSmallA shout out, on behalf of stockholders, for all the unsung heroes in process excellence.

This is the story of one:  the Head of Process Excellence in a global organization on a 7-year transformation program after rapid growth through acquisition. One of its strategic goals is to break down the silos and ensure more effective collaboration.

In his role as the final QA, my friend is under huge pressure to sign off the To-Be processes. But he’s refusing because there’s fog where there should be a clear line of sight.  The Global Process Owners are content within their silos and happy to fudge. They don’t welcome the clarity that will embed the changes.

It’s tough. In many circumstances, it could be career-limiting.  My friend has executive support, for now at least.  But there’s a lot of flak, with accusations flying of a major re-organization being obstructed by ‘process nerds who think their maps are more important’.

That’s process leadership.

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