Chasing Rabbits with BPM

Chasing the Rabbit” by Steven J Spear is a book about what he calls high velocity organizations.  Velocity is equated with success because these companies have the agility to respond and capture business.  It is not just speed.  These organizations are able to capture quality.

I was interested because someone had told me this was the secret to highly reliable organizations.  The book covers in detail the US Navy nuclear program which has 5700 reactor years of use without a single nuclear mishap.  It covers Alcoa, a company in one of the most dangerous industries, transformed itself into one of the safest companies in America, with an accident rate twenty times lower than the US average.  And of course, he compares the work of the big three US automakers to that of Toyota, through the direct experience of working on the factory floor.  The book is a good read, and I could not possibly do it justice in summary, but let me pull a few tidbits of wisdom I picked up.

Complex Systems are Unpredictable: Not just complicated, but complex.  These organizations are systems so complex that no one person can understand it to sufficient detail in order to predict the system.  “With all this uncertainty, it is also difficult, if not downright impossible, to predict the system’s behavior under the range of circumstances in which it must perform.”  Reductionists, who attempt to analyze a simplification of the system, will not find effective solutions.  Instead of attempting to design a perfect system, you design a system which can learn, adapt, and improve autonomously.  This is the only way to handle this complexity.

Don’t Copy, Learn to Learn:  “I’m critical of those who try to achieve great outcomes by copying the specific solutions other people have developed for their own idiosyncratic problems.”  A key message that it is not about Company X adopting the same practice as Toyota, but it is about Company X building a learning organization that can constantly adapt and improve their practice.  Peter Senge recommended this in “The Fifth Discipline” (1994).

Untapped Potential: “Alcoa was not content … with the model of scientific management championed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in which the “brains” of the organization developed optimal procedures for the “brawn” to employ.”   This quote resonates well with my last post “It is All Taylor’s Fault“.  The separation of the brains from the brawn is precisely what leads to low velocity organizations that fail to learn.  Time and again he points to organization that had information about problems, but no ability to do anything about it.  All humans have intelligence, and to think of workers as purely “brawn” is an outdated concept that isolates the person who has the most knowledge about the details of the complex system.  Without exception, high velocity organizations found ways to tap this potential.

Knowledge Work: The key point he makes is that a high velocity organization is one that constantly learns from mistakes, and from near mistakes.  We don’t normally thing of assembly line workers as being knowledge workers, but in this case they are because they are collecting the most critical knowledge for a high velocity organization – what works and what does not work.

High velocity organizations exhibit four capabilities:

  • System Design and Engineering – focus on output, pathways, connections, and activities.
  • Problem Solving and Improvement – anything that is unexpected gets reported, even if it not actually a mishap.
  • Knowledge Sharing – collect, organize, and make sure that knowledge is not lost.
  • Developing Skills in Others – teaching all workers the skills above.

== But what does all this have to do with BPM? ==

Predictability: All BPM is based on the idea that a process is predictable, but in the case of these complex system, the process is not predictable.  A rough process is created, but it works only through continual observation of anything unexpected or not completely understood.

Separation of Modelers and Workers: Even in the case of the model preserving strategy, BPM modeling of the process is expected to be done by a different person from the person performing the work.  He says: “if problem solving capacity were developed throughout the organization, those affected by a problem could often solve it themselves — and immediately —  relying on the experts only for problems of sufficient scale, scope, and complexity.

Transparency: Some BPM systems go to length to hide the inner workings of the process from the users, on the basis that they don’t need to know that to do their particular activity.  But Spear (and Ohno) shows us that the flaws in a system can only be understood by seeing that action in relationship to the whole system.  The whole trick is to engage every worker in the job  of improving the process — not just the specialists.

This is more support for the idea of Adaptive Case Management (ACM): a system that does not start with a predictive model of what is to be done, but instead with a clear description of the goal and a place to collect information.  With ACM, people collaborate to produce the processes.  The processes are transparent, and can be improved by any participant.  To be clear, I am NOT suggesting that ACM will become the process engine for a manufacturing production line.  Manufacturing aluminum, cars, or running nuclear reactors all require very well defined processes.  What is surprising about this book, is how high velocity organizations engage every person in the organization, from top management, to the worker bolting the seat into the Corolla, in active knowledge work around the design of those processes, constantly reacting and incrementally self improving.  Imagine how much advantage there is to harness the intelligence of the full workforce.

If one contrast was between Toyota’s practice of developing people and its imitators’ inordinate emphasis on product and process, there was also a contrast between how many companies thought about responsibility and how it was carried out at Toyota.  Dating back to Fredrick Winslow Taylor and before, there is the view that management is responsible for designing system, solving problems, and ensuring “compliance” with procedure, leaving subordinates to work around problems until something goes so badly that management can’t ignore it any longer.  That wasn’t the way at Toyota.



11 thoughts on “Chasing Rabbits with BPM

  1. if BPM is a false god, as you seem to suggest, what will all the techno-dweebs who pretend to understand the nature of business, ie “enterprise architects”, “bpm modellers/analysts”, etc do? They’re so smart, and oh so intelligent, surely they’re not waste?

  2. Really it is “scientific management” that is the false god, and BPM is simply its technological expression. It turns out the problem is more widespread than that.

    Clayton Christensen (Harvard Professor) writes the foreword to the book, and point out: “The preponderance of what is written for managers about management is bad theory and should not be trusted.”

    Still, I came down a bit too hard on BPM. BPM is useful for “routine” work, that is work that is predictable and repeatable. Estimates are that this is between 20% and 50% of all work. But high velocity organizations go beyond that into the realm of knowledge work which is not predictable.

    What will the techno-dweebs do? They will figure real quick that there is a new generation of technology which supports knowledge work, and they will jump on that bandwagon.

  3. Hi Keith, I am positively surprised to see my complex versus complicated reasoning being used by Spear and you. We are finally getting somewhere …

    In terms of BPM being a false god: It’s not the first one and it won’t be the last. Anyway, BPM methodology is good where it is creates understanding and a high-level view of the needed organization – strategy, structure and goals.

    The processes need to come from the bottom-up and emerge from the cooperation of professionals who take what BPM gave them as their bible to execute ‘the word.’

    In terms of BPM software? We are seeing more and more ‘dynamic BPM’ solutions that will reduce the amount of control and enforcement seen as so ideal today. More ACM-like solutions will spring up pretty soon and BPM products will be renamed to ‘adaptive’rather than agile.

    With ACM people will be easier motivated by making their work more enjoyable and not by fulfilling KPIs they don’t understand. Their will always be those who don’t care and those who do their best with whatever they get to work with. That are the wonderful dynamics of life …

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  5. >> All BPM is based on the idea that a process is
    >> predictable, but in the case of these complex
    >> system, the process is not predictable.

    Keith, you are funny, you keep making arguments about BPM that all point to “the lifecycle of business entities is well known” but “the sequence of activities that transition business entities from state to state (i.e. the process) is unpredictable”, yet, it never occurs to you to look under the process and surface the business entity lifecycles and find an articulation with “process definitions”.

    Processes, as defined by the punditocrats over the last 10 years or so, would amount to saying there is only one path to go from point A to point B and you can never use a different path. You can change the path, but there is always one and only one way to go from A to B. In reality, a process is like a road, it is a likely path, a well established path, nothing less, nothing more. It is not the only path.

    So saying a process is “unpredictable” is like saying when I need to go from A to B, I don’t know which road I will take, but going from A to B is what is predictable. Otherwise your argument makes no sense. What would it mean to say “the process is not predictable”, do you mean the outcomes? the objectives are not predictable? there is “nothing” predictable about a process?

    Common Keith.

  6. JJ: We have had this discussion before, and I thought we had reached concensus (ignoring terminology for the moment), but I am happy to proceed to get to a point we agree on.

    A process is truly unpredictable when you have no idea what you will be doing. To repeat myself from an earlier discussion: a person collapses and is taken unconscious to the hospital. The hospital will admit the person as a patient, without having the foggiest idea of what will be done. There is a “goal” of getting the patient well. They know that this will involve running some tests, prescribing some treatment, monitoring, running more tests, changing the prescription, and so on.

    The above description is not a “business process” in any usable sense. A business process must be specific about the task to a level the is relevant. Thus “An MRI scan of the skull” is a task in a business process, but “run a test” is not specific enough to provide any benefit either in prediction of schedules, workload or of providing historic insight into what the organization is doing.

    Consider a doctor who has a history of work of only “treating patients”. For 5 minutes monday morning, he “treated a patient”. Then for the next 10 minutes he “treated a patient”. And so on, so that the entire day is filled with “treating a patient” with no additional detail. That history is not useful for any benefit normally ascribed to BPM. To say that you can predict that next week he will be fully occupied with “treating a patient” is of no value at all.

    For a business process to be useful, it needs to be specific to meaningful level. “Meaningful” here is meant to imply that it is useful for identifying patterns which result in idea for improving the work patterns of the group. Continual improvement is the goal of BPM, and if you fail to achieve this, then there is little point in BPM in the first place.

    Back to the example: when the patient arrives at the hospital, there is no way to predict whether they will get a lung transplant, an appendectomy, a dose of aspirin, an X-Ray, an amputated arm, or chemo therapy. You might think that a hospital has a fixed repertoire of actions, but even the procedures they offer are continually changing. A patient can show up with a combinations of problems that require a completely novel treatment that the hospital has never done before.

    How can you say the process of treatment is predictable, when it can include treatments which were not even invented at the time the patient was admitted to the hospital?

    You must admit that this is an unpredictable process. Yes?

  7. Jean- Jacques, who cares how you get from A to B when in the middle of trying to achieve a positive customer outcome you find out that you are not at point A (even so the BPM system says you are) and the customer wants you to go to point X. Because you have a brain you know what it takes to go to point X, and because you care you would like to help him, but the system says no … you HAVE TO go to point B to meet you KPIs and get your piece of cheese.

    BPM assumes that management or analysts have a brain but the people doing the work don’t and who cares what the customer wants as long as point B is reached in the shortest and cheapest way. Hooray! Another successful BPM project …

    A business and its customers operate in a complex adaptive system that is not decomposable and predictable because of the individually acting agents. Keith’s example of an emergency room is just the far end of the process complexity scale. All non-manufacturing) processes are really like that (but less complex) until they are analysed and modeled.

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