Harmon on BPM: Process Mining Grows Up

Business process work involves many different types of activities. In some cases companies want to entirely reconceptualize a major business process. They start by imagining the role of a new technology and then design human and automated activities to support the new technology. Or they begin by imagining a completely new way of interacting with their customers. In other cases they use techniques like Lean or Six Sigma to redesign how employees handle specific activities. In our general survey of BPM, published in early 2018, we determined that 35% of responding companies were engaged in “incrementally improving existing processes.”

Improving existing processes ought to be easier than creating a new business process. To begin with, you have the existing process and can quickly diagram it to see what is being done now. Then you can gather data about problems associated with each step of the existing process. Imagine that the existing process can be decomposed into a sequence of 4 subprocesses (or activities). You can establish some criteria and determine if people are happy with the results of the first subprocess – with what that subprocess hands-off to subprocess two for example. You can also determine how much time each of the four subprocesses take and get some idea of where you might focus if you wanted to reduce the overall time required by the process. Similarly, you could determine what the costs involved in each subprocess amounted to if you wanted to focus on where you might save money. You could also check to see where human labor was involved to focus on where you might introduce more automation in the overall process.

Any conventional business process improvement book will provide lots of examples of incremental process improvement and techniques like those mentioned above that you might use to analyze an existing business process.

Increasingly, however, the first option to consider, is process mining. If the process is largely performed by employees, then you might reject process mining out of hand, but the more automated the process is, the more process mining deserves your attention.

Process mining depends on having data about the performance of your existing process. Figure 1 provides a simple illustration of a situation that lends itself to process mining. In effect we have a process made up of four activities. Each time an activity is completed, data about that fact is stored in a database. Thus, after a number of instances of the process have been completed, by examining the data we have accumulated, we can tell how long each activity takes, on average.

Figure 1

Figure 1. A business process that it saving data each time it is executed.

In fact, depending on what data we captured each time an activity was executed, we could gather quite a bit more information. Suppose that on occasion each activity rejected an input because it wasn't up to standards. A quick glance at that data could tell us which activity was producing the most defective outputs.

We have provided this rather simple example to simply show that data mining isn't very sophisticated stuff – it is simply an intelligent way of using data that many organizations are already gathering and using that data to learn about business processes. Historical books on Six Sigma or process improvement would have suggested data that process analysts could gather. In point of fact, today's organizations, with their high level of automation and their numerous ERP applications, are already gathering great amounts of data. All they need to do to take advantage of it is to acquire a process mining tool that is designed to interface with existing BPMS tools or with databases to extract the existing data and to display it in ways that help business analysts make decisions.

Process mining began to gain attention about a decade ago and its use has been growing steadily. Any student graduating from any of today's various university BPM programs has undoubtedly taken a course in process mining. More to the point, any process analyst attending a BPM conference can easily find a booth with people happy to demonstrate some of the latest process mining tools.

I don't often read about it, but any BPM group, like any functional unit in an organization, should be made up of business processes. In the case of a BPM group, one expects processes about processes, as for example:

  • Maintain division or corporate business process architecture
  • Develop new (transformative) business processes
  • Monitor and improve existing business processes
  • Automate existing business processes
  • Fix specific process problems
  • Train managers or employees in business process techniques

And, just as any BPM group should have some systematic set of activities to monitor and improve existing business processes, it should also consider ways it can improve or automate that business process.

One of the best options currently available to automate the analysis of existing business processes – at least existing business processes that are, themselves, already largely automated – is to use Process Mining tools to quickly gather and analyze data about the existing process. A human could spend a lot of time gathering data. A Process Mining tool, used in conjunction with an existing process, can quickly survey stored data and not only define the process in a generic way, but identify successful and less successful subprocesses, record times and rates and even identify types of errors. Moreover, each time you use the Process Mining tool, you will probably identify more specific types of information you would like, can arranged to modify the data being collected and become even better at analyzing the process in the future.

Business process mining can't solve all problems that analysts face. It doesn't have much to offer if one is doing a major process overhaul, or working with processes that are largely performed by humans who don't record their work in a database, but it is an increasingly powerful tool for those dealing with automated or semi-automated existing processes – about 1/3 of the processes users report they focus on – and any serious BPM team should consider incorporating it into their tool kit or into appropriate business process improvement processes.

Notes

Before reading anything else, download a copy of the Process Mining Manifesto (https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007%2F978-3-642-28108-2_19.pdf or
http://www.win.tue.nl/ieeetfpm/downloads/Process%20Mining%20Manifesto.pdf ) This document was developed by an IEEE task force on process mining, led by Wil van der Aalst, one of the leading researchers in the field. It provides a good, comprehensive overview of the technology.

If you are interested in an in-depth technical description of process mining, next acquire and read Wil van der Aalst's Process Mining: Data Science in Action.

For more information, check the IEEE website of the Process Mining website:
http://www.win.tue.nl/ieeetfpm/doku.php?id=start

Paul Harmon

Paul Harmon

Executive Editor and Founder, Business Process Trends In addition to his role as Executive Editor and Founder of Business Process Trends, Paul Harmon is Chief Consultant and Founder of Enterprise Alignment, a professional services company providing educational and consulting services to managers interested in understanding and implementing business process change. Paul is a noted consultant, author and analyst concerned with applying new technologies to real-world business problems. He is the author of Business Process Change: A Manager's Guide to Improving, Redesigning, and Automating Processes (2003). He has previously co-authored Developing E-business Systems and Architectures (2001), Understanding UML (1998), and Intelligent Software Systems Development (1993). Mr. Harmon has served as a senior consultant and head of Cutter Consortium's Distributed Architecture practice. Between 1985 and 2000 Mr. Harmon wrote Cutter newsletters, including Expert Systems Strategies, CASE Strategies, and Component Development Strategies. Paul has worked on major process redesign projects with Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Security Pacific, Prudential, and Citibank, among others. He is a member of ISPI and a Certified Performance Technologist. Paul is a widely respected keynote speaker and has developed and delivered workshops and seminars on a wide variety of topics to conferences and major corporations through out the world. Paul lives in San Francisco. Paul can be reached at pharmon@bptrends.com
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