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BPM: The Intelligent Assembly Line

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Business Process Management [January 2010]
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In the early 20th century, Henry Ford revolutionized manufacturing when he installed the first moving assembly line at his automotive plant near Detroit, Michigan. However, the assembly line concept had existed for centuries. From the Chinese Terracotta Army, assembled in 210 BCE, to sewing machine and bicycle manufacturing in the mid-1800s, the modern assembly line was the culmination of wildly divergent experiments with interchangeability, creativity, innovation and logic—spurred by technological changes and applied to improve production for competitive advantage.

Assembly lines addressed only the mechanics of processes. Without assessing the value of the overall process, the structure of the workflows that composed the process, or the productivity of the people involved, the benefits of assembly lines were limited to technical improvements. In 1911, in a paper entitled The Principles of Scientific Management, "Taylorism" or the Taylor system began to address the value of processes by analyzing and integrating workflows with the objective of improving labor productivity. Taylorism targeted efficiency improvements by eliminating unnecessary steps and actions and replaced processes based on rules of thumb with precise procedures developed through methodical review. In short, the concept of reinventing production, processes, workflow and job descriptions through analytical methods supported by available technology (e.g., stable electrical power, accurate machining tools, power-driven conveyers) existed long before the phrase "business process management" (BPM) was ever invented. Similar to the Industrial Age of the last century, the Information Age has necessitated a new business process paradigm for the 21st century. Rather than optimizing the physical labor needed to produce goods, modern organizations must find ways to optimize the services provided by knowledge workers. Though we are well into the Information Age, knowledge workers can still be found using processes and procedures designed decades ago to produce a physical product, service or transaction.

Predominantly manual and labor-intensive, most of these processes are based on paper information access, isolated applications with limited data and wholly discrete outcomes. These conditions are hardly relevant to business processes in the Information Age. Whether tasked with delivering value to the internal organization or to the external customer, knowledge workers are saddled with inefficiencies and obsolete preconceptions that significantly diminish their productivity and compromise their company’s ability to compete.

The principles of BPM still apply. In fact, given today’s challenging economic environment, BPM is more relevant than ever. The difference lies not in the practice, but in the premise. Today’s work product is most likely to be digital, content-driven and multi-threaded. Value, efficiency and effectiveness are measured in minutes and seconds rather than in hours and days. As maximizing productivity and efficiently using human and technology resources become increasingly vital to corporate survival, BPM as a concept, a practice and a set of enabling technologies offers transformative opportunities to modernize and automate aging processes. Technology is key to this transformation. Just as technology enabled "Taylorism" in the Industrial Age, it enables BPM for the Information Age.

The Basics of BPM
Regardless of the economic environment, enterprises in both public and private sectors must work efficiently, marshalling and managing their available resources to produce predictable and satisfactory business outcomes. To actualize these outcomes, organizations have created processes that define and coordinate activities between people (internal and external), applications, systems and information. Typically, these processes were instituted empirically and, in many cases, have never changed. In some organizations, attempts have been made to change and update processes, albeit arbitrarily. In others, the change impetus has been technology. In these cases, changes were almost always applied for purely tactical reasons. For example, organizations that adopted a new information system to manage data related to an existing process fell into the trap of adapting the process to the technology—the only goal being to make the technology adoption easier—rather than focusing on how the technology could make the process more effective and efficient.

Business process analysts must consider three things when evaluating the steps in a process:
1. Why each action is performed;
2. What value is added by each action; and
3. Whether any action can be eliminated without negatively impacting the outcome.

Peter Drucker described a common mistake of most process optimization initiatives: "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all." Simply applying technology to automate or expedite a process that is poorly constructed to begin with will only lead to faster and more automated inefficiency—which is not the goal of BPM. Neither is it a valuable application of supporting technologies like workflow. BPM involves more than isolated automation of manual tasks, reengineering, change management or workflow. While all of these are, in one way or another, part of a BPM discipline, they must support a strong business analysis practice. This doesn’t preclude technology from being included in the analysis. On the contrary, information-based BPM demands that all available technology improvements be considered to optimize a process.

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