Category: Process Improvement

A Portfolio Approach to Developing Workflows and Processes

One of the common pitfalls I see with process optimization projects is that they tend to focus on a specific process at a time.  This may be ok when you are just starting out, or working with informal processes, but as the number of complex processes improves it is important to try and take a step back and look at things from an overall portfolio perspective.  In many cases processes overlap or are interrelated.  I most often see this in finance processes because they are so common in all organizations.  Something like a Check Request process should be a pretty standard, well defined process but it is often part of a number of other process flows.  It is easy to ignore the fact that the same steps and activities are followed elsewhere, but that leads to a lot of extra work for the process designers and administrators as well as non-standard activities for your process workers to follow.

To overcome this, it is important to consider the following points when analyzing and designing the process:

  • Is there a natural collection of steps or activities?
  • Are these steps also done to support another process?
  • Is a different group or department responsible for those steps?

While performing the process analysis and design, some activities may form a natural grouping.  It could be a set of steps that are referred to under a particular label and they are likely to be assigned to or processed by a specific group of users.  For large complex workflows, it may be a good idea to make that a sub-process that can be referred to as a set unit.  It is important to talk to the stakeholders that perform those tasks and understand if those same tasks or processes are are also performed to support another process.  If they are, then it would be better to design a standard sub-process that is called from the other processes than to build in the specific steps into each process.

The Check Request example I mentioned before is one that I have seen come up in more than one organization.  There is a set of common steps where requests have to be approved, logged, and then processed.  Standard compliance activities are another example of a common central process that may be leveraged by a number of other processes.  Some times these opportunities present themselves early, but other times you have to dig to identify these sub-processes.  In cases where there are multiple groups involved the main process owner or stakeholder may not fully understand the details of how every step is executed so it is important to interview the actual project participants to understand what they are doing and other processes that may use those steps.  Within the Check Request example, it is unlikely that a process owner in Operations understands all of the various corporate activities that may generate a check request, they only understand that it is part of their one process.  By talking to the process workers in Finance, the other perspective can be considered.

By taking a Portfolio Approach in this case, you can potentially make real improvements that extend the process design and automation benefits not just to the one process, but to multiple processes across the entire organization.  Those processes will also get easier to expand and manage as they can leverage common sub-processes and existing functionality.

Finding the Sweet Spot with Process Improvement

Today while visiting a grocery (super-)store I witnessed a strange event in the parking lot where a couple of guys were “pushing” carts.  This is something I did in high school so it is a task I understand very well.  They had a 60’ plus train of carts along with a motorized device at the end that helped to push which is what grabbed my attention.  My assumption is that since they had the motorized device (technology innovation) they could take on more work (process efficiency).  What I witnessed was something completely different.  I watched them for well over five minutes.  In that time the train grew and grew and became very difficult to manage.  You can also imagine that a 60’ train of carts in a busy parking lot blocks quite a few cars, including my own.  From my time of pushing carts I knew what a manageable load was and that it was often more efficient to manage smaller subset of work.  In the time I watched them in this farce, the two individuals without the aid of any motorized cart should have been able to collect and return twice what they ended up collecting without unconvincing any of the customers by blocking them in.

This story is a great example of what happens when you overuse technology in an attempt to increase business efficiency.  It is important to look for the sweet spot, adding just enough value without overbuilding or you will see diminished returns. 

I’m sure everyone that has worked with workflow or Business Process Management (BPM) for any period of time will have lived through projects that went passed the sweet spot.  It is not always as clear as the shopping cart story above.  In my experience it typically comes from either trying to automate too much in a previously manual process or from trying to handle too many process exceptions.  One of my favorite things about process improvement is that it is not a one cycle process.  You go through iterations of improvement and continue to tighten up the process.  With this iterative approach it affords the team some time to automate the manual processes and helps the process mature a bit before you try and handle all of the potential exceptions. 

In one project where clearly things had been taken too far, the team had spent a pretty substantial amount of time working through all of the different types of process exceptions.  I think there were eight possible paths at one point.  After the process went live we ended up finding that a few of the paths were never followed, and a few others were followed fewer than 3% of the time.  Clearly mistakes had been made and the process was overbuilt.  Working in a few steps that were a bit more generic and only partially automated would have been a better alternative.  By planning smaller, more focused iterations you will show value quicker and make it a lot easier to plan the next improvement cycle. 

Overcoming Obstacles in SharePoint and Ent 2.0

One of my favorite general IT blogs is Michael Krigsman’s IT Project Failures blog.  Michael provides a balanced view with great insights into the failures of many organizations.  These are lessons that every implementer, integrator, or system stakeholder should pay attention to.

In a recent post titled Resistance to change:  The real Enterprise 2.0 barrier Michael discusses some of the challenges to implementing Ent 2.0 systems.  As always it is a great and relevant read, but I think it matches much of my experience with implementing SharePoint in the Enterprise.  The top obstacle listed was Resistance to change.  The capabilities of the tools are not the biggest limiting factor, user adoption is.  Some of the reasons discussed include fear of change, the power of information holders and lack of interest.

Fear of Change – This is a natural human response.  Much has been written about how to drive change in an organization, but I think the most critical technique is end user involvement.  When people are involved they are much more likely to have a positive view of the change and you are more likely to value insight into how things are actually done in practice. 

This also provides a good opportunity to fine tune your feedback collection techniques so that all stakeholders continue to have a voice after go live. 

Information Power – In some organizations there is a culture in place where people feel like they have to be a gateway to information.  With the recent economical downturn people are all the more desperate to be seen as irreplaceable.  Organizations need to work towards transparency and openness.  A positive side effect of this is better use of the subject matter or domain experts who are normally over worked in closed organizations and frequently have to answer the same questions repeatedly.

Lack of interest – Lack of interest can definitely have an impact on the life of a system.  Some users still do not understand or have any interest in Ent 2.0 systems.  I think easiest way to get passed this is to show sustained value.  It is easy to establish and maintain interest with small groups, but it gets exponentially harder as the size of the group increases.  Keep the tools current, and show incremental advances to keep stakeholder interest.

I’ve also seen turnover in key positions or management impact a groups use of these tools.  It is important to work with the new stakeholders to review what is there and what can be done to align it with any changes to the group’s direction.

Closing

I’m always interested in hearing feedback.  Do you agree, disagree?  Have any other tips to decrease the resistance to change?

Related Posts

Social Computing – Communities

I was very excited when heard that “Communities” was going to be one of the pillars for SharePoint 2010.  I think the Social Computing and Communities aspect is where SharePoint has the potential to really revolutionize business collaboration and computing.  Administrators and Developers don’t have to wait until upgrading to SharePoint 2010 though to start taking advantage of some of these concepts.  By making the adjustment now you and your end users will be better positioned to leverage these concepts sooner.

 

Key Features and Recommendations

Collect Feedback – Find ways to gather community feedback on content.  Take advantage of features like Content Rating and Comments, develop Surveys, and make it easy to access user contact information.

Notifications – Show the members how to take advantage of the Alert features so that they can receive timely notifications for relevant information.  In my experience, most know the Alert Me feature is there, but few know how to configure it to only get the notices they want to see.

Tagging – In the past few years tagging has been a popular way to describe and categorize content.  While it is not built into SharePoint 2007 (MOSS /WSS 3.0) there are a number of custom or add-on features available.

Show Related Content – Find ways to show related or relevant content.   If you are currently running MOSS, now would be a good time to dig in and learn how the filtering web parts work, as well as the search web parts.  If there is related data on the page, be sure to filter views.  Configure some search results web parts that can automatically show results based on what is being viewed.

Use Content Types – Using content types will help you better aggregate and work with the data.  This also simplifies the process of identifying the data in search.

Content instead of Documents – Think in terms of content, not just documents.  Most traditional information workers still think in terms of documents, but long time users of the SharePoint platform are starting to come around. 

 

Advantages

Member Involvement – These solutions get people involved which can lead to a self-sustaining effort.

Easier to find golden nuggets – Following these concepts will let the good content rise to the top.

SMEs and Knowledge Management – This gives you an opportunity to better utilize your SMEs in a group setting instead of one on one communications.  This can also be used to identify and develop new SMEs greatly increasing your Knowledge Management capabilities.

 

2007 Add-Ons and Solutions

SharePoint Tool Basket V2 – A number of features that can be enabled for collecting user Rating and Comments feedback on all types of content.

Community Kit for SharePoint (CKS) – Templates and features that extend the standard SharePoint feature set.

SharePoint Search-As-You-Type with jQuery – Instant search results by adding in jQuery.  Always an end user favorite!

 

Things to Consider

While I think that it a good idea to leverage these features now it is important to consider the upgradability.  In some cases the features may be built into the next version of SharePoint (Content Rating, Tagging).  If you add those features in now, you will likely loose that data during the migration process.  When approaching a version upgrade for a Knowledge Management or community application it is almost always best to build a new solution and migrate the existing content anyway though.  This gives you the chance to take advantage of the new features. 

 

Wrap up

Any questions, comments, or other solutions that you would like to recommend for extending the current 2007 platform? 

 

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Advantages of BPM/Workflow and Selection Criteria

Advantages of Business Process Management or Workflow
There are countless advantages to using BPM / Workflow, but here is a list of the most immediate advantages:

* Reduce Cycle Times
* Better Process Visibility
* Increased Accountability
* Smoother task orchestration and hand offs
* Process Standardization
* SOX Compliance


What processes should be selected?

There are many ways to select a process improvement project. First and foremost you need to select a process that is clearly defined and repeatable. If you have to build support for ambiguity and exceptions you will be left with a process that is difficult to use and maintain which will likely lead to a failed adoption. Another consideration is to select a process that uses people to rout and keep track of where a process is at. That orchestration can be difficult to maintain manually and normally does not give the other participants visibility in the current state of an individual request.

I then look for processes that are regulated such as purchase requests, common financial transactions, or IT account provisioning.

You can measure it using traditional Return on Investment (ROI) models, or you can take a more holistic approach and select your projects based on a broad range of criteria including Business Objectives, User Adaptability, and Technology Capabilities. While ROI is very important I think it can be misleading with BPM projects because it fails to include many of the soft return values for things like Process Visibility, Accountability, and less human bottlenecks in the process orchestration.

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