Throughout 2010, I talked with a number of business process executives that are members of Forrester’s Business Process Leadership Board.  These leaders all drive large BPM initiatives in the US and Europe, focused on continuous improvement and business transformation.  I usually begin those conversations with a question:  What’s your biggest problem with business process management (BPM) in your organization? Invariably I get a list of the big issues keeping BPM from progressing within the organization, and interestingly, the list of challenges remains the same across industry sectors and geographic regions:

  • Gaining sponsorship– getting the buy-in from senior business (and IT executives in some cases) usually surfaces as one of the first challenges business process professionals encounter.  Without strong buy-in from key stakeholders, you’ll never proceed with large-scale BPM initiatives—although moving ahead with smaller projects may be possible if you get enough mid-level managers bought in to it. But senior executive sponsorship remains critical, if for no other reason than helping you with business change management. The trick to getting executive buy-in?  Avoid technology talk and focus like a laser beam on the financial case. The more senior the business exec, the more critical it becomes to talk in financial terms.  At the highest level of the organization—say the CFO, COO, and CEO—only two phrases typically resonate: 1) how much revenue does it create? and 2) how much profit does it add to the bottom line?  Without addressing those two issues head-on, it’ll be hard gain executive level buy-in.  Fortunately, we’ve got some numbers you can rely on:  BPM projects typically deliver 30-50% productivity gains for processes involving primarily back office, clerical staff, and they typically deliver 15-30% productivity gains for processes involving knowledge workers.
  • Overcoming 100 years of functional thinking—Most businesses and government agencies organize around discrete business functions, like marketing, sales, research and development, operations, finance, HR and so forth. This type of functional organization structure comes from the industrial age (1800s) when division of labor reigned in a non-automated world. In today’s highly automated organizations, business processes that deliver value to customers from an end-to-end perspective usually cross these organizational boundaries, or silos.  Business process pros call business functions siloes because workers and managers within those functions rarely look beyond that organizational department to see how work that touches the customer gets done within other functions. While it’s possible to tackle projects within a single business function, usually high value business processes belong with a larger, cross-functional way of working.  Getting everyone on board to think about the value stream (a Lean term) from its origin to where it touches and provides value to the end customer remains one of the biggest challenges in BPM.  And getting organizations to overlay their functional thinking and org chart with a process mindset becomes the first step in shifting the organization’s structure to a true process-driven business. Often it requires prying back more than 100 years of encrusted, out of date, work patterns and practices from business executives who have never imagined any other way of getting work done.
  • Tackling business change management. If there’s one problem that gets cited repeatedly as the single most point of failure, it’s change management. The term itself has that touchy-feely connotation that completely turns off some executives, managers and workers.  But the lack of change management—and by that I mean “business change management,” not software change management—can stop a BPM project, program or strategic initiative dead in its tracks.  And guess where most of your change management expertise resides? (You’ll never guess.)  It’s in HR, most likely in the learning and development part of HR. The key becomes how to merge the high level change management approaches that HR knows about with the down-in-the-trenches BPM initiatives.  But, I cannot emphasize enough how important overcoming this challenge is. If you don’t know much about this topic and you want to get started on change management, we recommend reading: Leading Change by John P. Kotter, and Change Management, The People Side of Change by Jeffrey Hiatt and Timothy Creasey.
  • Developing and executing on internal communication plans. This BPM challenge actually belongs within the larger change management issue.  A comprehensive communication plan must start from the top of the organization, but not just stop there.  Instead, it has to trickle down through different management levels to eventually address individuals who have big concerns about how the changed process will impact his or her job.  Plus, the communication plan has to keep a steady drumbeat, not a one-time big bang.  It takes months/years for big changes to really take effect, and senior execs can’t just launch the communication and then disappear from action.  The most important aspect about the communication plan is to 1) incorporate it into your change management plans and 2) synchronize the communications plan with your BPM methodologies—making sure there’s strong alignment between your methodology and communication plan throughout key phases of the project.
  • Agreeing on tooling/methodology. If you equate business process improvement or process transformation with a major religion, then the various methodologies within that process religion are like warring denominations that believe in totally different dogma, think all the other approaches are wrong and cannot see how to possibly co-exist.  For example, you’ve got Lean converts, the Six Sigma fanatics and people who try to blend the two—the Lean Six Sigma advocates.  And you have the TQM adherents, as well as the perpetual discussion of do these concepts co-exist or compete with BPM. I’ll tell you a story I heard about issues surrounding a process methodology. Several years ago a company made a big effort to tackle Six Sigma by training several hundred green belts and black belts.  Senior management was totally bought in.  But the practitioners took a completely purist approach to Six Sigma by forcing everyone to learn “chapter and verse” the terminology and approach.  Ultimately, they failed miserably and disbanded.  Now the organization is pursuing BPM, and some of the Six Sigma experts got involved in this project too.  But they’ve learned their lesson.  The project teams have adapted all training materials to the company’s culture, rather than forcing a rigid approach down management’s and the workers’ throats. Needless to say, getting agreement on tooling and methodology really matters.
  • Expanding BPM knowledge beyond the CoE. Just about every organization you talk with either has a BPM CoE, has started a CoE or plans to develop a BPM CoE.   That’s great, because we’ve seen a correlation between BPM success and the existence of BPM CoEs. Sometimes the excitement about a BPM CoE becomes so loud (figuratively) that I try to remind everyone that the BPM CoE is not the end itself, but rather  a means to an end.  Still, I occasionally run into organizations that plan to build a huge BPM CoE, with 50, 75 or even 100 people in it.  I have to say–why?  Isn’t the purpose of a BPM CoE to perpetuate and spread BPM skills throughout the organization so that many BPM projects blossom?  That’s what I think the role of a BPM CoE is. A more appropriate way to think about the BPM CoE is to staff it with 2-3 business analysts, 2-3 developers, 1-2 architects and 1 executive (and that’s a big BPM CoE.)  Then, with these skills and people in place, the BPM CoE can help leverage other BPM projects or initiatives throughout the organization, help evangelize BPM throughout the enterprise, and focus on more company-wide issues like training and governance.
  • Determining “how big is a process?” – The British have a wonderful expression that pretty much sums up what a process is.  It’s “how long is a piece of string?”  You simply can’t answer that question because it depends on how much of the string was spooled out before you cut it.  Similarly, trying to get your arms around a complete process is really tough.  One person’s set of activities is another person’s process.  I know of one company in the 1990s that envisioned 3 processes:  1) get customer, 2) ship product, 3) get paid.  Very few, if any companies, view their processes that broadly. My own rule of thumb is to focus on the stream of activities that when done, end to end, add value to the customer.  That’s a great way to think about the size of a process because ultimately, selling BPM is a financial exercise.  If you take an outside-in perspective, and try to derive as much value as possible for the customer, that will help make the business case for how much BPM impacts metrics that matter:  market share, customer satisfaction, increase skills, etc.  If you have an internal view, then make sure you put together a stream of activities that will take significant cost out of the organization. Now, tell me again, how long is a piece of string?
  • Closing the process skills gap. I’m passionate about finding solutions and approaches for building and leveraging business process skills.  The reason?  If we are truly going to pursue BPM on a wide basis to deliver continuous improvement and business process transformation, then we will need many more business process practitioners.  Most of the people I’ve talked with say it takes about a year to fully train a BPM business analyst or process analyst, and it takes a long time to create a business architect too.  Some visionary B schools and engineering schools offer dual programs that graduate students with both technical and business skills, but it’s still a tiny minority.  And most companies I talk with find that traditional business analysts (up to 80% in some cases) don’t make the transition from their current jobs to BPM analysts. So where are we going to get these people, and how are we going to train them?  You can’t hire them because people with BPM skills are a rare breed and they get snapped up immediately when in the job market.  So far, the BPM CoE seems to hold the most promise, particularly a BPM CoE that draws on both business and IT skills.  We believe BPM CoEs are a big part of the skills development solution, and will also help BPM projects succeed.