InSource Solution's Ann Croom on what six blind men and an elephant have to do with BPM

Ann Croom

All too often different parts of a company are working on different parts of the puzzle – gathering data requirements or working on employee engagement, for instance – so nobody has an overall idea of the whole picture, says Ann Croom, President of InSource Solutions and SightBridge Consulting, a provider of process automation software and consulting. That can lead to silo’ed thinking, which is a little like six blind men feeling different parts of an elephant and trying to get a sense of the whole.

In this Process Perspectives interview, Croom describes her company’s evolution within BPM from a focus on just automation to the realization that sometimes a project that delivers successful technical outcomes could still be unsuccessful from the perspective of the business and also comments on what she sees as the future of BPM.

Editor’s note: This is a transcript of a recent podcast. It has been edited for readability. Listen to the original podcast here.

Which part are you looking at?

PEX Network: You had an interesting path into the business process management world. Tell us about how you ended up here.

Ann Croom: InSource was really formed about 15 years ago. At that time, we were focused on plant floor automation technology – the industrial automation and operations management area. We sold software and hardware technology mostly to the manufacturing and maintenance engineering groups.

The software allowed operators and engineers to really see and control what was happening on the plant floor and allowed them to capture data in the manufacturing environment and use that data to manage performance and complexity. But, as we matured as an organisation, we began to take a broader view and I personally, along with our organisation, had a couple of big awakenings.

The first awakening, or aha, was around why we exist as an organisation. We came to terms with the fact that we’re really passionate about revitalising manufacturing in our local communities. We came to be in tune with how critical manufacturing is, not only to our economy but also to the vitality of our local communities. So we committed as an organisation to take a more active role in the evolution of manufacturing.

But our second big awakening is really how we came to the world of business process management. We’d been focused for so long on the technology itself, especially in our early years, that we sometimes lost track of the bigger picture.

We started to see some technology project patterns - namely, that what was initially considered implementation success may not have been considered a success by the client business over time.

I’ll give you an example.

We spent a lot of time doing projects like batch process control or OEE or energy management systems. They were all technically sound. They functioned as designed. The technology was doing its job. Yet the clients weren’t more profitable or more productive at the end of the day or two years down the road as time went on. So they weren’t really delivering on the long term business goals as promised, and even if the success was initially found, sometimes it wasn’t sustained.

That’s a long way of saying that led us to our Sightbridge consulting practice and the creation of a system for management.

PEX Network: I hear a lot of people say that you have to be very careful because, on its own, a tool or a software solution isn’t going to solve all the business problems that you think it will. So taking a broader view then, how have you seen BPM as an industry evolve over your time involved in it?

Ann Croom: I’ve probably really been focused at the commercial, the industrial manufacturing environment and from that perspective, quite honestly, the evolution has been slow. We believe that’s because, in many ways, BPM Solutions are coming to things from a silo’ed point of view. What leaps to mind for me is that old folk tale about the six blind men who are trying to understand an elephant: one blind man is feeling a leg, one’s feeling a trunk, one’s feeling a tail and so on.

In our case, we see a blind man approaching the data requirements or the automation of a project. Another one’s focusing perhaps on culture or employment engagement and another one may be working on the standardised work processes. Everyone’s intentions are good and yet no one has the full picture. It’s not wrong. It’s just not complete. Their individual realities are very different, not connected, and as a result the success has been limited in some way.

So what a lot of us have learned is that processes, especially those processes that are dependent on human interaction, can’t be sustained unless they’re reinforced. What we see is BPM really starting to evolve to the point where it’s beginning to help and support that reinforcement mechanism in a disciplined way. As the technology implementations meld with all of these concepts, we’re going to see it continue to evolve, and that’s really exciting.

PEX Network:So now, how does your company fit into the BPM picture exactly? It sounds like you’ve got an interesting take on it.

Ann Croom: We’ve had great success in the manufacturing and the industrial environment. In that world what we found is we really have to meet organisations where they are. We are coming there to help improve productivity and profitability, but because every organisation is at a different point in their maturity when it comes to technology or their operational processes or the culture we have to gauge their capacity and their willingness to invest in moving the status quo, and that’s going to vary from organisation to organisation.

However, there are a few principles that we see that apply to all situations.

First, we work not only top down, but bottom up. Top down we’re looking to understand the business’ priorities and trade-offs. Bottom up we want to ensure that we have a real understanding of the operational data and making that data actionable so that the target improvements are sustainable.

By bottom up we also mean a willingness to work shoulder to shoulder in our environment on the plant floor to understand the cultural and the procedural and technology challenges that that organisation faces. Because of our automation background, we’re used to dealing in real time and it’s really helped us understand the pressures and the complications that manufacturers are facing today.

A second common principle that we apply is – and we were just talking about this – the idea that technology is not enough. You have to couple that with standardised processes and empower employees and use the technology to enable that in a real time, intuitive way.

The other principle that we apply a lot is the balance between routines and continuous improvement efforts because you need both and you have to find the right balance.

Let me give you an example of how these might work together. We had a client who had initially very little infrastructure for data collection on the plant floor and yet they really wanted to find a way to get their shop floor workers actively engaged in managing the performance of the organisation. Fantastic goal! They tried various things such as visual management where they put in some manual data collection for visibility.

These tactics worked initially but weren’t really sustained.

What we found was they were missing a couple of key elements to be successful. The first was that they needed accurate and reliable automated data collection. The second one was that the demand for performance had to be clearly articulated and regularly inspected, starting from the plant manager and going all the way down through their system.

So we worked with that client to design and deploy a basic performance management system. It asked the operators to handle categorisation of issues as they saw them. We deployed a series of reports for them that gave them that automated easy visibility. We installed a series of review meetings – shift, daily, weekly, monthly – that integrated that demand for performance information from the very top of the organisation all the way down the chain.

What happened was the relevant information was understood at every layer, as you’d expect, because they understood it. They owned it. The information was timely and accurate so there wasn’t that second guessing where you end up having the whole conversation about the data rather than what you’re trying to accomplish.

In the end, the inspection chain was linked all the way from the top of the organisation to the bottom and no one was asking why. They knew why.

In the end, the project was a fantastic sustainable success. When we went back to audit, the great thing was that they weren’t so much worried about the performance output as they were focused on, the performance of their management system – were we doing what we said we were going to do?

PEX Network: It probably goes without saying that technology itself has really been changing the way that organisations operate. What do you see happening to BPM as these technology shifts really continue to change the way that organisations themselves are operating?

Ann Croom: IT technology in general – and forget about BPM –is moving to be lighter and more action oriented. As we’ve just been talking about, organisations used to be a differentiator if you were agile and your speed to market was improved, but that’s just necessary for survival today. Data availability also is growing at such an exponential rate.

We do find that as organisations mature, their capacity for adopting some of these BPM technologies also matures. The stage is set for BPM technology - as with most technology – to be more seamlessly integrated into people’s lives. It’s a little less prescriptive and perhaps a little more socialised. It becomes more realistic to really achieve its purpose, which is to reinforce and drive adoption.

PEX Network: So what do you think this actually means then for BPM? What does the future hold in store?

Ann Croom: I think it’s a very bright future. From our perspective, we’re seeing a manufacturing renaissance of sorts under way and were looking at these new millennials - this next generation coming into the workplace and coming into power.

At the same time, people with key manufacturing knowledge is moving toward retirement, so we see a real role for anyone or anything that can simplify the integration of technology and process and people for sustainable advantage. We believe that BPM plays a key part in that.

It’s really true that we’re looking for BPM to transition from simple process automation - whether it’s plant floor in our environment or in the office - to really driving that process excellence that we’re looking for.

PEX Network: One thing I always like to ask, particularly the various consultancies and software vendors that I talk to is, how would you say that you differentiate yourself? So, how are Sightbridge and InSource Solutions different from other players in the marketplace?

Ann Croom: We know manufacturing from the bottom up. It sounds a little clichêd but we really have a passion for that environment. InSource grew up with that best of breed manufacturing IT technology for automation and operations management, so I think we really appreciate the complexities and nuances of that environment of manufacturing better than many. Also, we came to the "BPM party" through the back door, and I think this makes us unique.

So our consulting team, Sightbridge, has learned firsthand that to meet those business objectives in a sustainable way, technology is necessary but not sufficient, so I think they’re unique in their perspective and ability to achieve adoption. And, as we were talking about, we really allow the blind men to see the whole elephant, so I guess our history and emphasis is what makes us unique and our results just make it fun.