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Process intelligence tools reduce guesswork, increase payout of BPM

Process modeling can be a challenging step in any business process management strategy, but process intelligence tools can remove the guesswork and some of the complexities.

Business process management (BPM) aims to increase efficiencies by opening up process bottlenecks and cutting out any unnecessary steps. But it can be difficult to pinpoint a problem if you don't know what you're looking for and even more difficult to fit extensive processes into neatly packaged workflows. So some users are getting the data, and the analysis, with business process intelligence tools.

Business process intelligence is the study and analysis of business processes with the goal of understanding them from the inside out. Business process intelligence tools use technology to analyze, monitor and optimize processes on a historic or real-time basis, as opposed to fitting processes into determined workflows or basing process changes on assumptions. Such tools, according to Clay Richardson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc., can help minimize the time, cost and uncertainty associated with process modeling -- an important first step in BPM strategies.

"If you can see the 'really is process,' not the 'as is process,' you can more accurately decide how to improve processes," Richardson said.

 For Waterton Residential chief technology officer John Vilim, some processes in his 475-person residential investment company were far too complex to fit traditional workflows. While linear processes were automated and actually lent themselves to workflow solutions, nonlinear processes that required a lot of organization, dependencies, coordination and manual checklists did not.

"The first nonlinear process we tried to automate did not lend itself to a workflow solution at all," Vilim said. "The project was stalled because every tool we tried failed."

Vilim had seen the benefits of implementing workflow automation on several prior occasions. But trying to fit an extensive process with multiple legs into one workflow was nearly impossible. "We had so many workflows and so much overflow that it became ugly and complex," he said.

But Vilim then found a tool that could address nonlinear activities without process models or strictly defined sequences -- BP Logix Inc.'s Process Director.

According to Richardson, Process Director is a process mashup tool with the look and feel of a project management dashboard. Although it offers limited process intelligence capabilities, it provides deeper analysis of common process paths and Richardson said it is a low-cost tool that could help users get started with BPM. It uses time-line based process automation and ongoing historical activity analysis to monitor, predict and help to avoid future bottlenecks.

"We're seeing people who know the beginning and the end of a process but don't always know the processes in between," Richardson said. "These tools allow you to route it where you know it needs to go in a runtime model and initiate the processes when they reach milestones."

For example, employee onboarding is a common process with multiple steps and overlapping dependencies that many organizations struggle with, Richardson said. "There are simultaneous activities and dependencies that put a lot of constraints on what can be accomplished and when," he said. Business cards can't be ordered by the human resources department until IT has set the new hire up with an email address and phone number. But there are other activities that can be done by the office manager at the same time.

"Dependencies between activities, where one has to finish before the other can start, can slow down progress," Vilim said. "But having a dashboard that kicks off multiple activities at once, automatically checking them off as you go, eases some of the burden of crossing these workflow paths and you aren't spending time sorting through emails and phone calls."

Real-time process discovery

Greg Mueller, manufacturing systems analyst at Portland-based Electro Scientific Industries Inc., a leading supplier of photonic systems for microengineering production applications, had a different beast to tackle when he turned to more progressive process intelligence tools. More than having to discover the business processes, Mueller had to present hard data to demonstrate process inefficiency to get buy-in before he could move forward in one department.

We found a significant amount of problems that we never even knew existed because we knew where to look.

Greg Mueller, manufacturing systems analyst, Electro Scientific Industries Inc.

Mueller and his team were tasked with fixing an order/inventory problem on the sales side. Operations drives most of the BPM initiatives within the organization, but the sales team was a separate animal. It developed its own processes, making it more difficult for operations to come in and point out problems, Mueller said.

"If you ask anyone, anywhere if they do their job efficiently, they're going to say yes," Mueller said. "As far as the sales team was concerned, they didn't have a problem -- they were meeting the sales quotas. We had to come armed with data to prove it to them."

Mueller brought in Fujitsu's automated process discovery and visualization service to track actual processes as they happen. After providing Fujitsu with the existing process database logs, Mueller's team spent about 90 days gathering all the data (including narrowing the scope to reduce the information to a more manageable chunk) and developing realistic process models.

Although an ongoing process, the analysis did lead to the automation of many processes, Mueller said. The system also allowed the team to limit the options that the order and sales systems allowed to keep processes moving.

"We found a significant amount of problems that we never even knew existed," he said. "Because we knew where to look."

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