The BPM Vision

I was asked recently how one helps managers achieve “a BPM vision.”  Since my concept of BPM is very broad, we are not talking about just getting managers to understand that they could use BPM software tools to help manage their business processes — although that is part of it.  More broadly, however, we are talking about getting managers to think of their organizations as composed of processes that produce goods and services for customers.  The same value chain processes that produce goods and services for customers integrate all of the people and activities in organizations.  If a process doesn't produce what it should, one looks to see why the process isn't functioning as it should.  What activities aren't being performed correctly?  Why aren't the activities being performed correctly?

The essence of the process vision is that everything in the organization is integrated around process to produce value for the organization's customers and other stakeholders.  No other perspective allows you to think about an organization with this kind of clarity. Financial reports tell you some important things, but they won't help you understand why it takes so long to fill an order, or why customers are unhappy with the service they get when they call in and ask questions about the new product line.  Analyzing departmental results may tell you that you have problems within specific departments, but it won't tell you how much any one department is contributing to delivery failures.

This isn't to say that the process perspective is the only perspective — it isn't — but its one of the key perspectives.  Managers that get this, think about processes and emphasize process improvement.  Those that don't get it thrash around trying random solutions.  The most popular of the random solutions is to fire individuals and hope that the new hire will solve the problem.  If the problem really is inside of marketing, then a new head of marketing may help.  Otherwise… Good managers are process focused — they have to be because to be good they have to understand how their organizations work.

Some managers who are good don't use the word “process” to describe how they think about organizations.  I've read several books by good executives that describe what they do, and never mention process.  I think of one CEO who described how he broke the organization into “production phases” (upstream, midstream, downstream) and assigned managers responsibilities for the outputs of their phases.  And then he compared the outputs of managers of similar phases in different regions.  This particular CEO talked about it as an “Organization Design” problem.  That's OK.  I don't care what you call it, but to my mind that CEO understood process and set up a process management system.

So, assuring that an executive has a “Process Vision” can be a bit ambigious.   It doesn't bother me because my definition of process is broad.  The key isn't what you call it, but that you see your organization as a system that produces outputs, and you focus on how things flow from raw materials to finished outputs, or from customer requests to customer satisfaction.  It's easy to get lost in the details:  Every department head want's to focus on his or her department's problems, and few want to take responsible for things that happen downstream as a result of something they are doing upstream.  The executive with a process vision, however, is quick to see the linkages, however, and relentless in requiring that everyone focus on the entire value chain.

Keeping the value chain flowing smoothly and integrating it effectively requires that each department adjust its activities for the good of the whole.  That in a nutshell is the process vision. Good managers get this, no matter what they call it.  Poor managers get lost in the details and fire and hire subordinates in hopes that they will somehow make it work right. I'm not sure that process practitioners can do much to affect this.  I suspect that managers either learn this in business school and from experience — or they don't.  And if they don't, then trying to teach them a systems or process prospective, after they become the CEO, is a bit late.

That said, its certainly important that process practitioners clearly understand and articulate the process perspective themselves.  It's just as easy for process people to get lost in details — to talk on and on about the latest notation, the latest software tools, or about competencies or culture change theory.  There are places where those conversations are appropriate, but the CEO's suite isn't one of them.  The emphasis in the CEO's suite ought to be the quality and quantity of outputs, and about adjusting the flows within the organization to maximize efficiency and effectiveness.  The vision should be on producing valued outputs faster, better, and cheaper.  The emphasis should be on supporting activities that result an effective value chain and on changing those that disrupt or sub optimize it.   It should be on improving the organization's performance and meeting goals.

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