Do Management Gurus Encourage Process Enforcement?

As part of the research for the last keynote I gave, I wanted to see how well known management gurus recommend supporting knowledge workers to be more effective.  What I found was surprising and well understood at the same time.

The purpose of “Business Process Management” is to improve the business capability of an organization.  people-cogsWe don’t create processes simply because we like being organized.  You can measure the success of BPM by whether or not the business output (profit) increases.  To increase the effectiveness of a business you have two options: automate the process to eliminate people from the process, or facilitate the human work in some way.  In general, it is routine work that can be automated, and knowledge work can only be facilitated.

I was interested in this latter option: how do you get people to perform better?  This has been the purpose of management for hundreds of years to do exactly this, and there is probably some well understood approaches in the practice of management.  I found the following quotes.

Roger Martin

Mastery without originality becomes rote. The master who never tries to think in novel ways … will produce the same kind of resolution even if the context demands something different. Mastery without originality becomes a cul-de-sac.

Roger Martin is the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.  What I find interesting is that he does not say to eliminate variation.  He does not say to find the one best way to do something, and get everyone to do that.  He clearly does not believe that mastery implies that things are perfectly repeatable.

Imagine a BPM expert suggesting that you process was run differently every time, and suggesting that if it did actually repeat itself it would be a dead end!  That is the difference between facilitation of knowledge work, and automation of routine work.

Marcus Buckingham

The true genius of a great manager is his or her ability to individualize.

A great manager is one who understands how to trip each person’s trigger.

Your strongest life is built through a continuous practice of designing moment by moment.

Marcus Buckingham is the author of “First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently.”  Notice that he does not say fine the one best way, and try to get everyone to do the same thing.  Mature managers know that people with expertice have unique things to offer, and their value is in that uniqueness, so don’t try to treat them like interchangeable parts.  He does not say to design the plan once.  He does not even say plan what you are going to do ahead of time.  Instead he jump with both feet right to the adaptive idea that you should plan your actions as you are doing them, moment to moment.

Jim Collins

I don’t know where we should take this company, but I do know that if I start with the right people, ask them the right questions, and engage them in vigorous debate, we will find a way to make this company great.

Jim Collins is most famous for his books “Good to Great” and “Built to Last.”  He is one of the most trusted authorities on how to lead an organization to success.  What is interesting is his flat out rejection of the idea that plans can be created centrally and delivered to the workers.  He does not see a separate of the brains from the brawn, but instead recognizes that the real smarts are out there distributed in the team.  Don’t kill that ability by telling them what to do.  Instead, ask the team what the team should do, and help to guide the best ideas that come from that. Imagine a BPM analyst suggesting that instead of defining the process, we are going to have all the workers get into a vigorous debate?  Again, this is the difference between routine work and knowledge work.

Michael E. Porter

Companies have to be very schizophrenic. On one hand, they have to maintain continuity of strategy. But they also have to be good at continuously improving.  Change brings Opportunities.

Michael E. Porter is a professor at Harvard Business School. He is a leading authority on company strategy and the competitiveness of nations and regions.  Once again we are not trying to find the one best process and enforce it, but instead to focus on continuous change.

Lynda Gratton

If a majority of the people on a team already know each other, the team can become stale and predictable. It’s often through the unexpected insights of new colleagues that innovation is sparked.

Lynda Gratton for the London Business School seems to look down on the idea of predictability as being stale and undesirable.  Clearly she does not recommend doing things the same way every time.  Imagine a BPM analyst suggesting that a BPM process will be stale and predictable.  She suggests going out of your way to throw people together in unexpected ways in order to spark innovation.


Most of you have been around the block a few times, and are not surprised at the wisdom of these quotes.  Of course human workers bring creativity and innovation, but only if you give them the space to develop it.  There is very little about forcing workers to take any particular path, and these gurus uniformly do not imply that there even in a single best path to be found. Experienced managers know these things.

Consider this article from the American Management Association called “The Six Principles of the Psychology of Growth” which encourages organizations to convert knowledge into growth,  engage the critical mass of the organization,” and engage the “Whole Brain.”

What is only surprising is how stark in contrast these quotes are to the idea of the cycle of “define, implement, execute, measure, and improve” which is the mantra of the BPM domain.  Organizations are not machines, and we should not treat knowledge workers as interchangeable parts in a machine.  This is not happy-speak about some sort of worker utopia, but instead well understood principles of leading organizations.

What we see here, is a clear difference between the goals of automating routine work, and the goals of facilitating knowledge work.  They are different.

4 thoughts on “Do Management Gurus Encourage Process Enforcement?

  1. Keith, YES! But we have been quoting various management gurus and scientific results no end and for some reason there is no convincing people stuck in the BPM dogma. You also propose in your posts that there are automated processes (BPM) and knowledge processes (ACM). I propose that there are VERY FEW processes in human interaction that can be automated. In 2010 I even used a mathematical formula to explain why rigid flowcharts won’t do it in a business that is not a machine but a complex adaptive system:

    “It is neither financially feasible to analyze all possible variants of all complex processes by questioning agents nor ensure that they are inline with needs over time. Therefore ‘standardized’ processes are designed that hopefully cover 80% of process variants over time and thus would produce the savings.

    A ‘getting 80% right’ proposition fails however, because it does not take process interdependencies into account. Let’s assume that one process owner has only ten processes to achieve his goals and he manages to get each one to cover 80% of all variants (as proposed by BPM methodology) then the ten processes will intersect and produce also a combined set of possible variants. The question is how much of the total process space (as given by the joint graphs) is covered by this main variant. To determine the ratio of the overall coverage we use the cross correlation matrix for all processes. If we make the assumption that all variants are independent (the cross correlation matrix is the identity matrix), we can calculate the answer: 1 / (1 + n * (1-p)) with n=10 and p = 0.8 we get ~33%. Only A THIRD of all possible variants for this process owner are covered! A calculation using simple probability is even lower.

    To achieve 80% variant coverage for all ten processes, each one would have to be 97% correct! If all process owners of a business are only getting a third of their processes right by automating them, then the cost of achieving quality at process handoffs will be much higher than the optimized 80%-process seems to suggests. Is anyone surprised that the flowcharts may not be satisfying the goals of customers and that short term cost savings do not continue long term?”

    Not a single BPM ‘expert’ offered a discussion or explanation as to why that would not be true or how it would be countered. That simply leads to the conclusion that the reason for management to do BPM is not improving quality as proposed, but only to cut costs. And even that can’t be achieved as the formula shows.

    • It would be interesting to see how you measure “correctness”. That is the issue you present here is the probably of “getting it right”. There is another view, and that is whether there is any benefit over a non-implemented process. Presumably, there is a benefit (i.e. a cost savings over manual) when the process works, and a cost over the manual when it does not work. It seems that your calculations will be sensitive to these cost assessments. For example, if 80% of the time the process saves you 50% of the cost, and the remaining 20% of the time, the cost is 120% of manual, you end up far ahead even though only 80% of the processes work.

      I will maintain my position that there are situations which I might call “artificial” processes where the organization is is complete control of the process. For example, Henry Ford was in control of his factory environment, and ATT is in control of their systems that are needed to set up a new telephone customer. In cases of “artificial” process (i.e. manmade processes) you can simply “make up” a process and make everything fit the process. In those cases, automation works. That is why I distinguish knowledge work from routine work.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. “Organizations are not machines, and we should not treat knowledge workers as interchangeable parts in a machine. This is not happy-speak about some sort of worker utopia, but instead well understood principles of leading organizations.” I don’t think anyone in BPM (that I know) would disagree with this statement, but few would equate BPM with “treat knowledge workers as interchangeable parts in a machine”. In fact, BPM done right makes the work interchangeable and leaves room for differentiated performance of individuals. I guess if you think BPM = BPEL then the argument makes sense, but BPEL hardly defines BPM.

    Thought experiment – edit your post to remove all reference to BPM. Its a pretty good post by itself. But the shots across the bow at BPM don’t stand up under scrutiny, and really aren’t necessary for making the positive argument that ACM goals appear to line up with these leadership/management gurus’ goals. If the argument is that good leaders use “ACM” over BPM – i’d like to know how many of these leadership gurus are using ACM products or believe they are using ACM as a method… I think I already know the answer.

    One beauty of the gurus – they don’t actually have to run a Fortune 500 company.

    • We have had this discussion before, and your definition of BPM encompasses all of the process technology domains.

      Of the seven domains of predictability ( five of them compose process technology. The two leftmost of them cover what I would call BPM. You would call all five BPM. Others have other definitions. It really is too bad that the BPM community is fractured in this way to the point where you can hardly have a discussion about it.

      There is a significant body of literature around the position that the purpose of BPM is to find the “best” process for an organization. My writing has been consistent with this. What I am showing here is the fallacy of thinking that there is a “best” process when it comes to managing people. Hence, the very purpose of BPM is at odds with these agreeable positions. I am not making BPM to be “bad” but rather appropriate for some purposes, inappropriate for some purposes. You define BPM to be all process technology and seem to take offense when I position BPM for particular traditional uses. It is really just a disagreement on names.

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