Sunday, April 17, 2011

The New Wave Business Process - Part III : The Elusive Business Process

Wiki defines the term 'business process' as a set of related, structured activities which lead to a service or a product being produced and delivered to customers. What this implies is that if you can define your business goals and list down the activities in various functions needed to achieve these goals, you should then be able to set a sequence to this list, which becomes your business process.

Business is definitely run 100% on process. What matters is what is the maturity level of the business process in your organization. After all even ad-hoc collaboration leads to following a process which delivers products and services. However, ad-hoc process will not be scalable or repeatable. If we want to deliver consistent reliable service to customers, then business process maturity has to be ensured.

In order to take steps forward in the right direction, we need to first realize where we are. In your organisation, if  you see great customer appreciation for individual efforts, personal interactions help save the day, and your team is motivated to ensure no problem is insurmountable in meeting deadlines, then you are in trouble as far as process maturity is concerned. These are all symptoms of an ad-hoc process organization.

What you need to do at this stage is take a hard look at the structures in your organization, study process documentation (in all likelihood - none), and embark on a study of process frameworks best suited to your business environment and industry sector. Such an entity is likely to go through organizational re-structuring, documentation of existing ad-hoc process, adoption of frameworks and trying to super-impose ad-hoc processes to standard frameworks.

In order to reach Managed processes, such an entity would be well advised to set up a central process analysis team comprising of a cross functional selection of senior managers. This forum should be empowered with top management sponsorship and review. Individual heroism should take a second seat to the goal of creating a managed process entity.

This forum should strive to build / modify the organization structure aligned to processes. This will lead to internal service units being created which so far as possible are the owners of specific deliverables within the entire process and which in turn defining TAT and SLA for each other. This would also result in providing role clarity to employees on what exactly they are supposed to deliver to the organization.

The hallmark of a managed process entity would be existence of disciplined organizational units which own and deliver specific tasks with desired quality and within specified timelines. At this stage the organization should see repeatable practices, customer appreciation for consistency and reliability of the organization as opposed to appreciation for individual heroism earlier.

By now the organization would be demonstrating process definition in every work unit. Each work unit is now stabilizing their process. It is possible to get data out of every process step to measure and improve on bottlenecks. The next step would be to standardize the processes across work units and ensure seamless interaction among various functions. Only at this stage would BPR or Six Sigma programs yield benefits for the organization. If such exercises are attempted on an immature organization, the programs will not be well appreciated and by the time we reach this stage a fatigue would have set in amongst the resoruces which will make it all the more difficult to progress beyond this stage.

Thus it is very important to calibrate the process maturity journey of the organization to avoid mis-steps and over-reaching one's goals. While we are moving processes to managed and stabilized stages, it is also important to realize the potential of automation in bringing about productivity gains. Automation will help little in ad-hoc processes and will in fact be counter productive as one goes on spending endlessly on automating new ad hoc processes continuously. Once work units agree upon standardized processes, automation can be brought in to define, perform, monitor, measure and report on processes which can be then taken up for further improvement based on observations.

These further improvements are most likely to come in the form of end to end integration projects being taken up within the organization. By this time, industry best practices would have been instituitionalized and functions will even start improvising on industry best practices. This should neither be surprising or disturbing. After all industry best practice is defined as those practices which work best for us.

Beyond this, each organization will need to find its own unique path to reach repeatable and innovating stages of process maturity. At repeatable stage the aim will be to reduce process output variances, empowered functions will take corrective action or improvement steps on their process area, since they know the larger model and are in sync with the larger picture of the organization. Organizational capability measures will be more in focus rather than function wise capabilities.

For an organization to be recognized as an innovative process organization, there should be demonstrated sponsorship of innovation projects, proactive improvement programs for achieving organizational goals. Often what is seen is that leadership teams attempt to execute projects at innovation maturity levels which may be in keeping with their thought process maturity, but fails to recognise the maturity levels of the organizations that they head. This is a major pitfall to be avoided. Leaders need to ensure that they nurture the maturity level of their organizations, rather than operate at innovating levels and assuming their organization will play catch up.