The Wrong Question for Process Discovery

There are some tips in the field of BPM that you don’t want to find out by trial and error. If you have done a business process improvement initiative, you already know that the first step is to model the process. In order to model the process, you must uncover what the process is, and this step is called process discovery. How to you discover the process? You ask the people who work there, of course.

The naive approach will be to identify the process participants, set up an appointment to sit with them and as “what do you normally do for your part of this process?” Seems like a pretty good approach on the surface, but there is a hidden pitfall. To the extent that the person knows what they do, this will yeild the “sunny day” scenario. When you complete this exercise you have a process that represent what happens if everything goes right.

The “sunny day” process diagram is fairly clean and straightforward, and most people agree it is correct, but when you put it into use something very surprising happens. You find that what people actually do is very different. Those differences are called “exceptions” to the rule, and therefor don’t fall into the category of things that people “normally” do. At this point you try to retrofit the exceptions into the process, which can take longer now that it is happening late in the development cycle. Many organizations actually spend a majority of time and effort handling such exceptions and so their consideration in the process is very important. These are not failures, but simply cases that do not fit the normal rules.

There is a better way. I attended a talk by Dr. Michael zur Muehlen today at an impressive “BPM Day” at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken New Jersey. He says that the right question to start with for process discover is one like: “tell me about the most difficult case that you handled”. He says it is then easier to combine a number of these into a common a “rainy day” scenario process that includes the important exceptions from the beginning. Not obvious, but it sounds like good advice to me. Leave it to a German to point out the benefit of a “rainy day” scenario. 🙂

BPM Day was a seminar to cover tips and techniques in Business Process Modelling presented by:

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10 Responses to The Wrong Question for Process Discovery

  1. Pingback: Column 2 : links for 2007-06-27

  2. This was a helpful suggestion on how to elicit the exceptions up front. I would also like to suggest another verbal technique to get people talking about what doesn’t work for them. Ask then to imagine that they had a magic wand and could fix anything they wanted. This will often result in a discussion of the parts that are broken in a process — a good thing to know up front.

    Peter McGrath

  3. Pingback: links for 2007-06-28 « steinarcarlsen

  4. Keith, thanks for coming to the seminar, your kind words, and for picking up this remark. Jan and I have written a short article that elaborates on this principle, it can be found here:



  5. Pingback: Questions for Process Discovery

  6. Ganesh Janakiraman says:

    Very interesting. I’ve never really thought abt this approach. As explained in the blog, I’ve always had people describe the “as if” process as opposed to the “as is”. But then question that I have is, what if the particpant you are interviewing already has a good understanding of the process. Do you still spend time understanding the “rainy day” picture? In my experience, i’ve come across people who can paint you a picture with almost all exceptions. So I believe there needs to be an initial participation evaluation before an eliciting technique is employed. Thoughts??

  7. kswenson says:

    I agree, some people will have a very thorough understanding of the process. Examples are mentors or leaders who have taught others the process enough times to know the exceptional situations, and to prepare people for how to handle it. These people understand the full range of “process weather” both sunny and rainy.

    But, my experience has been that most of us are too busy doing the job to worry that much about the process. In fact, most of the time the process itself is tacit and not explicitly known. In these cases, asking for the rainy day situation can help to tease out the otherwise invisible knowledge.

  8. We have many practical experiences with process mining in dozens of companies. Our experiences indeed show that people are often incapable of describing their own processes very well. There are often major deviations between the assumed processes and the real processes. In our process mining tool ProM we not only support process discovery but also conformance checking. For many real life processes we find a conformance of less than 50% suggesting that less than half of the process is not executed accoring to plan.

  9. Pingback: Keith Swenson’s Blog – On Collaborative Planning « Adam Deane

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