Feel Like You're Running In Circles? You Are!



Dan Morris
08/31/2011

Feel like you're constantly battling different forms of the same problems? You probably are, argues Dan Morris in this month's column. Changes that are good for individual managers and departments might be bad for the business as a whole, he writes. Here's why you need to take a wider view.

How many of you feel like you are running around in circles when you look at change in your business area? Worse yet, how many feel like you are running in place – nothing really changes, no matter how hard you try?

Frustrating isn’t it! I personally pound my fist on desks and grit my teeth to get the frustration out. I’ve seen others look for some poor goof to yell at and even worse. But that is just a temporary letting off of steam and not a fix.

If you were in a big auditorium with people in similar positions who were asked to raise their hands if they felt this frustration, the room would be full of people with their hands up.

In healthcare, my teams and I are still addressing the same problems we were dealing with 20 years ago – for example, medical records, revenue cycle, and bed management. Talk about feeling like you are running in place!!!! In pharmaceuticals the story is the same – just with different problems such as clinical trials management. And, in manufacturing we are still trying to optimize order to cash. The list goes on and each industry has their list of problems that everyone keeps changing and changing and changing. The problems just don’t go away.

Context and Speed of Change

We have found that part of the problem is the dynamic nature of business and the way change has had to be approached in the past. There have been basically two levels of change – big "we must do something" change efforts and the small under the radar changes that empowered managers or staff just do. A third more recent type of change is the "low hanging fruit" project that can be completed in a few days or weeks.

All have given improvement and saved millions of dollars for companies. All are thus good – at least on the surface. But, a broader view is showing that changes can be good for individual managers and solve specific problems, only to cause problems downstream. Also, this constant change is creating an environment that is chaotic and that can actually hurt the ability of the company to move quickly – things can become disjointed and responding to needs for change can be a long and difficult effort.

The Situation

Processes are cross organizational aggregations of work that produce an end product or service. They thus include work from multiple business units. But, each of the managers must focus on their part of the business. That is how they are measured. So, everyone improves their part of the operation from their perspective. But, changes at the lower activity level in the individual business unit workflows don’t happen in a vacuum. Each creates a ripple through the process. With the degree of both managed and unmanaged (get the job done) changes, the work is in constant turmoil as everyone adjusts to the ripples. And things that were once fixed become changed byoutside unknown "improvements" and need to be fixed again.

It seems that there are two fundamental issues that have been driving this circular cycle of change. The first is that in the past we haven’t had an ability to really manage change at a process level and thus most change was made independently by individual business unit (or even lower level) managers. This business unit level change could actually have a negative impact on process flow and quality as it can stop the components from different business units from fitting together.

When this happens, the operation becomes disjointed – causing the need for more change. Secondly, this change has created complexities that are the main culprit in the creation of "White Space" work (under automated manual work that constantly flexes and changes in response to changing company needs). This environment is both eating budget and frustrating everyone.

In my last column I said that not all change is good. That is absolutely true.

Today, few companies have a real process view of the operation or control over the bigger picture impact of changes. A lot of change in companies happens in low level organizational isolation. A great many change projects are narrowly focused and look at individual activities or small improvements – often disguised as "low hanging fruit". While many of these projects deliver savings and other benefits, this constant turmoil offers limited lasting results. Nothing really important changes and it feels as if you are on a treadmill – you work a lot and go nowhere. You are running in place. So, you are right back where you started and you still need to fix the real causes of the problems – which can exist outside your operation.

I believe that the real issue is the inability of most operations to see how everything fits together and works in one model. In most companies these models are in organization pieces that don’t really flow and it is difficult to understand how things really work. This limits the potential benefit of any change because it doesn’t allow for a full view of impact or associated costs – fixing what gets broken in the ripple of the change. But, while limiting benefit, it has a very different effect on risk. The more low level unorchestrated change in a business, the greater the risk of harm or disruption to the company.

For discussion sake, let’s look at the company as an orchestra. Business units are like sections in an orchestra. All must play together in harmony to produce even simple music. When the sections all make small changes that help them reduce complexity without looking at the impact on the symphony, the result is cacophony. Everyone just kind of does their own thing – some making changes to sound like jazz, others rock, others country, and so on. Then what was once orchestrated and coordinated to produce something beautiful is improved right into ear shattering noise (like when my family sings Happy Birthday at parties) with each part of the orchestra trying to outdo the other parts. It would sound similar to the tuning of the instruments before the orchestra starts to play. But, at the business unit level each change makes sense and improves the music that they care about – and that they are evaluated on. So, to each change manager, the change is good. But to the company, the result is less than harmonious.

Two problems drive this situation. The first is context. There is simply little visibility into most end to end processes today. There are often business unit focused models, but not end to end process models. And realistically, this is where we hit the definition wall that I talked about in my last column. A lot of companies narrowly define process and model it. But, they are in fact modeling a part of the process – work within a given business unit. At ABPMP, we look at business unit level activity as workflow which is part of a bigger whole – a sub process which is part of a process. This distinction is critical to understanding and solving this problem.

For most companies it has been impossible to see the whole symphony and to understand the interplay between business areas or to orchestrate change to everyone’s advantage (and avoid making changes that hurt one another). The models and ability to get needed information simply didn’t (and to a large degree still doesn’t) exist in companies with no or limited use of BPM technologies.

This is where BPM and a good BPMS come in. Once the business models (business unit workflow models and process models) are in a good Business Process Management Suite (BPMS), changes can be viewed for potential impact at any level – process, sub-process, workflow, business scenario. This is done in the BPMS simulation modeler where impact can be anticipated and modified to have an optimum impact across all the involved business units.

The second problem driving this operational change treadmill is the lack of process level change approach methodology and governance. In our orchestra example, this is what allows everyone to pick a different type of music to style their changes on. Country, Rock, Classical, Jazz and Blue Grass really don’t sound well when played together as part of the same symphony. Really, just image that!

While it is a basic need, seeing change at a process level is not really enough. Change must be made following a consistent approach that is controlled by methods and formal governance. This is critical in insuring the quality of changes and making all change visible – if you don’t know about it, you cannot control it. This is what keeps the changes in the symphony in sync (controlling way change is made) and the harmony (quality of the change) intact.

But without recognizing and solving these two problems, while everything looks good to the individual managers, the discordance in the symphony just gets louder as everyone runs in place focused on their own small part of the overall symphonic music score.

The difference is visibility.

The advantage that is now becoming available is to allow those developing business cases to understand the upstream and downstream impact of any change. This will help them to look at scope differently and to get the people needed to orchestrate the change across organizations involved. It will also help set the environment for project participation priority among different business units.

I believe that readers should consider the creation of a BPM Center of Expertise, whose job it is to keep track of all projects and the parts of the business and processes they will modify. This is the group that will be responsible for governance – keeping everything in harmony and following the same genre of music. Their job is to make certain change benefits both the business unit and the process. In this way the BPM CoE serves as the conductor of the orchestra and orchestrates how each section changes their part of the score. This makes certain that the changes flow without disrupting other parts of the orchestra and the music it is playing – to deliver a product or service without deafening the workers.

In companies that have adopted a process perspective tied to business goals and strategy, the way business units can interact with one another is changing and driving collaboration and improved communication. When this perspective is tied to an ability to listen for discordance in the company operation, a CoE or group looking at broad change, can make certain the change projects join to provide a result that is greater than the sum of the individual projects. However, these groups must have a feedback mechanism to alert them to impending problems with change or the solutions the projects provide.

To provide this feedback, Social BPM is emerging to help deal with the perception issues and the constant changes that happen in every business unit. The media is not important and email can support the messaging. What is important is that companies encourage staff to note changes and why they are made so they can be reviewed for their impact on both the business unit and the process or processes. But, even more than that, this use of a social media approach with bulletin boards, emails, or other medium, puts managers in touch with what is going on and how the operation is flexing as it addresses new situations and as it must adjust to system, rule and other changes. By sending this information to a central group, like a CoE, the information can be analyzed and the business changes can be controlled.

Although this discussion is obviously high-level and just touched on several key points, the central message is one that I believe must be kept forefront in companies that want to gain an ability to avoid discordance. That is to look at change collectively in companies and manage it as a whole and not simply as individual efforts. This will help management stop running in circles as they try to adjust to changes that come unexpectedly from projects in other groups or from unintended ripples as projects are implemented.