Business Processes or Business Principles?
Business process modeling is an incredibly powerful technique, and one that is core to the BA toolkit.
Modeling a process enables us to understand how the work ‘flows’ between teams and makes it easier to spot process problems and bottlenecks. Process models also enable us to standardize how work is undertaken. This has a number of advantages: training becomes easier (as there is a documented standard) and we also get a more consistent customer experience.
However, a ‘more consistent customer experience’ isn’t always synonymous with a better customer experience. An inherent risk awaits us in our rush to automate, standardize and speed up processes—there is a danger that we’ll create a process that looks great on paper but in reality is so rigid that it doesn’t survive contact with the real world. Perhaps you’ve experienced these types of processes: they are the types that appear to have been built for ‘average’ cases and ‘average’ customers from the organization’s perspective. Unfortunately, there is usually much greater variety out there in the world than organizations realize, and if processes are rigidly applied and enforced this can mean that front-line workers (however good intentioned) just can’t do the right thing for their customers.
I remember once being in a hotel reception and two guests wandered in and enquired about availability. The receptionist informed them that they had plenty of rooms available–however bookings had to be conducted via the website or call center. The guests explained they were visiting from Australia and using data/making calls from their cell-phones would be expensive. The receptionist sympathized but explained there wasn’t really anything they could do. The guests walked away.
On paper having a standard booking process makes sense. Channeling everyone through the website sounds like a great cost-saving initiative. However it excludes some folks who might have genuinely wanted to spend their money buying a product or service. Standardization makes sense providing thought is put into how any exceptions will be handled, and providing the impact on anyone who is deemed “non-standard” (a horrible phrase!) is considered. As with many things, it works better with analysis!
Process or Principles?
Three questions that are perhaps not asked enough when we model processes are:
- What is the ultimate aim of this process (what outcomes for the customer and for the organization are we trying to achieve)?
- What principles should it adhere to?
- Who should the process include and who should it exclude (if anyone)?
If we take a process to book a hotel room, we might assume that the ultimate aim is to record accurate reservation details, allocate the room, and send confirmation to the customer. The customer’s aim is to get a room reserved and the hotel’s aim is to sell a room reservation. These are nicely compatible aims. Yet it’s worth thinking about process principles here—is there a principle of ‘making it as easy as possible’ for the customer? If so, it would be crazy to prevent reception staff from helping guests make reservations. If the process principle was ‘reduce contact with reception staff to save money, but accept we’ll lose reservations’ then pushing people to the website might be fine.
There’s also the question of inclusion. We might ask whether our process would be usable and appropriate for (say) someone who was partially sighted, or who has short term memory problems. Certain ‘automated’ and standardized options may prove extremely convenient for some stakeholders but virtually impenetrable to others. It’s important that we raise these ethical issues and ensure that the impacts of those design decisions are understood.
Whatever the process, there will inevitably be something unexpected that occurs. A hotel might have a “no refunds” policy for pre-paid bookings. Yet, if the hotel is forced to close due to an outbreak of coronavirus (something that few process-modelers were explicitly considering) then they might be legally required to offer refunds. Of course, nobody can predict what will cause this need for flexibility but it is useful to consider the types of flexibility that will be required along with who is authorized to exercise them. It would be a public relations disaster if a company can’t respond to public outrage just because it’s processes are ‘hard baked’ and unchangeable.
As BAs we have the ability to curiously challenge and intelligently influence. Process modeling is certainly one area we can do this.