Teaching Elephants to Dance

[My July column for BPMInstitute.org]

In these tough times, even the most change-resistant organizations are re-examining whether past practice should continue to govern standard operating procedures. Government and airlines, for example, spring to mind. Last week, I saw further evidence of this in delivering a BPMN training class to one of the many Federal agencies involved in financial regulation. I was surprised to find that most in the class were experienced process modelers already. Many had prior BPMN experience, for some including BPMN-based BPM Suites. The processes of greatest interest concerned internal policies and procedures: hiring and employee onboarding, granting security clearances, etc.

On the flight home, another pleasant surprise: wi-fi and AC power at my seat in coach! For about the same price as one of those nasty "snack-paks" they offer, you can get in-flight Internet service coast-to-coast. While other airlines solemnly invoke policies and procedures to ban cell phones, GPS devices, and even powered headphones below 10,000 feet, Virgin America has figured out that giving business travelers an extra full workday might be good for customer satisfaction.

On the flight home, I noticed something familiar in the latest column from my favorite business journalist, Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post. Headlined "The Productivity Revolution Trickles Into Government," the column relates how a top government priority, $80 Billion in loan guarantees for clean and renewable energy, did not expect to achieve approval of its first guarantee until the end of 2010, a full five years after Congressional authorization. Lots of rules, you see. Policies and procedures.

Not good enough, said Obama's new Energy secretary Steven Chu on taking office in early 2009. He challenged his staff with the simple question, "What would it take to get the approvals done in three months?" Well. If you ask it that way... It turned out the secretary had the authority to waive, modify, or expedite half of the procedures - no one had bothered to ask - and the first loan guarantee was issued to a solar panel manufacturer in March 2009.

The real problem was no one was thinking about the end-to-end process. As Pearlstein relates,

[Chu's consultant] assembled staff members from all the offices involved and vested them, collectively, with end-to-end responsibility for the approval process. Up to that point, people had been focused only on their own narrow tasks, and when they were finished they tossed the application over the wall to the next office. Once they started working as a team, however, they found that some of the work... could be done simultaneously rather than sequentially.
While he could not have provided a better summary of BPM, Pearlstein frames the story in the more familiar narrative of "productivity," government plodding versus the "efficiency" of the private sector. But this is not really about productivity, which measures output of work per unit of labor or capital applied. This is about cycle time, which is more often hampered by the structure of the end-to-end process rather than resource efficiency: unnecessary steps, excessively sequential processing, and no KPIs or governance at the end-to-end, customer-facing level.

Other recent government "productivity" gains Pearlstein cites are similar: DoD civilian security clearances reduced from 440 days to 40 days. IRS new hire process reduced from 120 days to 15. This tells me that while the principles of BPM are taking root in government just as they have in the private sector, the media still does not understand the role of process. They don't yet get the BPM story.

That story begins with understanding the end-to-end process as a single "thing," and measuring performance from that end-to-end, customer-facing perspective. That means, in turn, you need to be able to document the process end-to-end in a concise but readily understandable way, so you can clearly visualize the handoffs, exception paths, rework loops, and other sources of delay and stalemate.

Once you can visualize the process in this way, it becomes much easier to tackle process improvement. What would it take to do it faster, with less cost, or with higher quality? Why do we do this step here? In fact, why do we do it at all? Aimed at a process diagram laid out on the table rather than at the responsible person or organization, such questions lose the sting of a personal attack. They put the focus on the process rather than on the resources performing it. That's a plus. Sure, implementing some of the proposed improvements may involve some office politics, but it no longer requires a miracle.

It all starts with documenting the as-is process, in a clear and sharable way. BPMN, the industry standard for process modeling, is great for that, and government is eagerly adopting it. But using BPMN effectively to create process models that stand on their own, clear from the diagram alone, requires a methodology and a consistent style. You can get that in my new book, BPMN Method and Style. Even better, you can learn it in a two-day class at BPM Institute, in Washington DC September 23-24 or in New York November 3-4. So whether you regulate Wall Street or work on Wall Street, here's a way to jump-start your organization's process improvement efforts.