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Business process management: Avoiding the pitfalls

A panel of experts at Gartner's BPM conference discuss the common risks associated with business process improvement -- and how to avoid them.

LAS VEGAS -- Process improvement touches many parts of an organization -- from infrastructure and business strategy to organizational redesign -- which means missteps can abound. A panel of been-there, done-thats at the Gartner Business Process Management Summit last week in Las Vegas offered practical advice on how to avoid common risks.

The highest correlation between business process management (BPM) projects and failure is lack of support from top management, said Richard Welke, a former CIO and now director and professor of the Center for Process Innovation at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

"Fundamentally, people hate change," Welke said, citing findings based on three decades of systems development research.

"What you need to offset this is continuous, visible, top-level management support, not just a rah-rah speech at the beginning of the project, never to be heard again," he said.

Another mistake people make in process development projects is to focus on operational metrics. Teams zero in on Six Sigma benchmarks, variance reduction, cycle reduction times and so on, Welke said, "forgetting that processes exist because they have customers."

Indeed, customer metrics are rarely studied. As a result, new business processes are implemented that achieve certain operational benefits but fail to succeed in anything the customers value.

The precaution? Identify who the customers are for the process, what drives their ambition and "at least, at a minimum, make sure those things don't get worse as a result of improving the operations aspects of the process," Welke said.

Keys to a successful business process management project

BPM is also a project that tends to be oversold, Welke said. The temptation is to promise the moon -- like business activity monitoring and complex event processing -- because the new BPM tools put them in reach. He urged the audience to start small, and "keep expectations low."

Once the project is under way, Welke advised that the BPM team include a "servant consultant," someone who will help users own the new process. "As soon as users lose the feeling that they won the process, you've pretty much lost it," Welke said.

"Maintaining that ownership covers up most other problems, because people who feel they own something will make sure it works."

Finally, Welke pointed the audience to a phenomenon known in academic circles as "escalating commitment to failure." Individuals involved in the project keep dumping more in, even as it stretches on interminably without clear metrics, rather than cut their losses. "You can't let the chicken manage their own coop," Welke said. Someone outside the projects needs to watch the metrics.

How to navigate resistance to business process management projects

Panel member Linda Baril, an executive director at JP Morgan Chase & Co., agreed with Welke that resistance to change is a "huge factor" in a BPM project, because the hoped-for change is huge.

One of JPMorgan's BPM projects involved re-architecting a 20-year mainframe application using PegaRules Process Commander from Pegasystems Inc.

The application, a mission-critical system in the bank's treasuries function -- handled 15,000 financial investigations a day, was used by 2,500 people, spanned 10 lines of business and drew on a database requiring 15 terabytes of storage. The project involved re-architecting 46 major workflows.

Resistance came from high and low.

About six months into the project, Baril's team changed the color of the screens on one of its releases, and users complained they couldn't do their work because the screens were making them nauseous. "By the way, we changed the colors back," she said.

Expect resistance, too, from the technology team. "As an old techie I wouldn't have expected this," Baril said. "Some folks fall in love with other tools and they want to use their tool and cobble it together with whatever tool has been selected. It really won't work."

JPMorgan actually sequestered the business process experts and the technology experts "for long periods of time" to re-architect the workflows. On the door was a warning: Leave the baggage for how you have done this for the last 20 years behind you.

BPM comes with a steep learning curve, Baril said. If you keep finding defects in the final testing, "you could be in trouble," she warned, as that often means your team didn't master the curve.

She agreed with Welke that members of top management must be ever-present and their expectations managed wisely.

"BPM is oversold to senior management," she said. She quoted what a colleague said of her senior management: "Not only did they drink the Kool-Aid -- they drowned in it."

The snicker test and your BPM team

Steven Smith, CTO for Wells Fargo Financial, believes success starts with picking the right team. Smith delivers IT services for 20,000 employees and millions of customers.

His suggestions: "Get a cross-functional team of worker bees … and share with them the list of the BPM team members. If any of them snicker, that is probably a pretty good indicator that maybe you don't have the right team put in place."

Another Smith rule of thumb is to spell out how the new process will affect full-time employees. "Fingers and toes don't equate to benefits," he said. Many BPM teams will talk in terms of saving "5% of Sally's job, or 10% of Joe's job," but the new roles and responsibilities should be explicitly stated.

A warning sign is when the team starts to express concerns about capturing any benefits from BPM without making massive changes to the IT infrastructure.

"If you are going to select a BPM tool, you really need to have a tool that will lay over your current IT infrastructure like an umbrella. It should be able to take information from a number of different SORs, present the information to a human being who can make a decision and then modify the information based off that decision and put it back into the appropriate system of records."

That said, Smith added that the BPM tools have matured to the point where they can help bridge the boundaries between corporate entities and systems.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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