A waiter saunters up to your table, seeming somewhat aloof, with pen and pad in hand. As you and your guests pore over menus, your server introduces himself and rattles off the day’s specials. He asks for your drink orders, scribbles a few notes in shorthand, then disappears into the bowels of the kitchen. Two minutes later, he returns with your drinks, then takes a more detailed order for food.

No matter how many dishes you order, with all sorts of special requests - extra mayo on the BLT, hold the mustard on that bacon cheeseburger, no ice in the Diet Coke - the waiter finds a way to cram every bit of information onto one slip of paper, no more than three inches wide and six inches tall. Did he really get everything?

Ultimately, your faith in this restaurant is validated: everything arrives just as ordered. There was one slight mix-up, with the garden salad finding its way to your station, instead of the seat next to you, but that was easily remedied. When all was said and done, Ron (your waiter) walked away with a handsome 20 percent tip.

Of course, not every restaurant encounter goes so smoothly. The special orders usually cause the most trouble, but all sorts of mishaps can and do occur often. A quick examination of the processes involved reveals several key areas of exposure: initial communication with the waiter (did he hear your clearly?), transcription of your order onto the waiter’s pad (did he write everything legibly?), translation of the waiter’s notes in the kitchen (did the cook understand the chicken scratch?) and delivery of the goods to your table (was everything placed correctly?).

Worthy of note is the exposure that revolves around the documentation, that tiny slip of paper which holds the instructions for your desired meal. If you’ve ever seen one of those order slips up close, you know just how cryptic they can be. Once the document leaves the waiter’s hands, it’s like a message in a bottle, hanging precariously above the cook’s station, awaiting attention.

Also noteworthy is the exposure that occurs at handoffs between the three groups involved: from your party to the waiter, from your waiter to the kitchen and from the kitchen back to your table. Handoffs present significant challenges in any set of processes, because the smallest translation error or other mistake can make the difference between chicken parmesan and chocolate pie.

Mistakes can also occur within each group. You might order by number, for example, but mistakenly give the number of the meal just above or below yours. The waiter could use the wrong shorthand for a particular meal; maybe he’s new, or perhaps he forgot that the codes were just changed again. And there are all sorts of things that can go wrong within the kitchen.

Each of these groups has its own set of processes, which we might call “process towers.” While there are any number of things that can go wrong within a process tower, the greatest exposure tends to exist at the handoffs, when one process tower interacts with another. These are the “message in a bottle” moments, when an entire deliverable hangs in the balance, and the smallest misinterpretation can result in project failure.

Process Towers in Practice

Like the efficient restaurant in our example, most large and midsized organizations today have done a good job of documenting key procedures within specific process towers. The advent of compliance mandates such as Sarbanes-Oxley has certainly raised process management and documentation to the forefront of enterprise concerns. Despite all the resulting attention, however, there are still significant gaps that occur between and among process towers.

The good news is that these redundancies present genuine opportunities for cost savings and efficiency gains. Consider this example: typical operational process models (often called workflow models) contain roles that are represented as swim lanes, which describe who or what part of the organization is expected to perform a certain piece of work. Details about what must be done are often contained in another model, called an operational model. Connections between activities and especially across roles should be closely inspected. Frequently there is work going on with each of those handoffs that is not described and can be improved.

The typical scenario involves one activity in a particular role that generates some sort of output that must be delivered to someone else. That output often needs to be input into another system, or at least understood and acted upon by an employee or partner. The transformations that occur just before the deliverable is output and just before it’s input on the other side represent the greatest opportunity for optimization.

For instance, a business may have a specific customer relationship management (CRM) process and solution in production. There is likely another process and solution in place for order and supply chain management. Normally a business would have an order interface between the CRM application and the back-end order and supply chain management solutions. The typical interface between such CRM and back-end solutions will often require some sort of “black box” that handles data transformation between such solutions.

The full cost associated with process handoffs and data transformations has multiple dimensions. First, there is the potential of wasted (often redundant) work at the operational level. More frequently than not, this work is not even discovered without specific questions and discussion with those people that are assigned to those roles and activities as described in process maps. This is a great reason to embed process review into your organization’s protocol, perhaps monthly, quarterly or at whatever interval best suits your operations. By integrating a process review, you’ll create opportunities to find redundancies and thus improve efficiency and lower cost.

Between the major process towers, there is often work going on at the person and system level that is unnecessary. At the person level, manual work is often done to execute handoffs, and usually this work is focused on rekeying or re-entering some sort of data, sometimes in a much different format than the target system wants.

From a systems or automation perspective, if the process handoffs were uniform and seamless, there would be no need for those black boxes. The development and ongoing operational costs (execution time, maintenance) of those programs would be eliminated. But that’s in a perfect world, and usually such seamless handoffs only exist in marketing brochures.

A whole variety of developments will result in changes being needed to hand off procedures. New systems come online; new channel partners come into the picture; older systems are upgraded. In all of these scenarios, having a detailed set of process maps comes in very handy. Without such documentation, there will usually be hiccups, some of which won’t be discovered until mistakes have been made, resulting in unhappy customers and partners.

In the restaurant example, one process change might involve the adoption of new codes for meals or the addition of new menu items. If a waiter or cook is not up to speed on the new codes, a customer will likely get the wrong order. In the CRM example, there could be a new order fulfillment system or an upgraded supply chain management solution. If the mappings between fields are not done correctly, the end result could be bad data or even a botched delivery.

Documentation: The Glue of Success

Project managers know all too well just how analogous their situation is to that of the waiter. That tiny slip of paper which holds the information of your order is just like the requirements document for a new data integration project. Like our proverbial message in a bottle, the documentation provides all the necessary information required to deliver the desired solution. But how clear is that document? Were all the critical factors considered when drafting it?

Often, people on the business side fail to accurately describe what they want, which results in a suboptimal solution. Such a failure is not necessarily the sole fault of the business users in question. Rather, the IT staff must also take responsibility by asking enough of the right questions to ascertain what, exactly, the business users want. In our restaurant example, this would be like the waiter cautioning a customer that a particular dish is spicy or sharing that other customers have expressed a particular fancy for a certain item on the menu.

Here again we have a case of process towers interacting: when the business users and IT staff get together, there is a very significant handoff that takes place. Making sure the documentation covers all the important bases is a mission-critical task. Ideally, detailed process documents should be involved here, as they will provide information about who must do what, where and when. Rarely do organizations employ process models with such savvy; if your organization gets on the ball, this could be a significant competitive advantage.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind with respect to process optimization is that it is, in and of itself, an ongoing process. There will always be new opportunities, and sometimes all it takes is a different set of eyes to look at a process. Sometimes a different questioning and discovery technique can yield otherwise undiscovered options.

The bottom line is that any organization on a quest for continual process improvement must have and use a high quality set of process documentation. Ideally, these models are used on a weekly, even daily basis. And part of the workflow must involve feedback from operational personnel, the folks who work on the front lines. However, if an organization is not willing to commit to the long-term management of its business processes, then it should not spend a penny on building process documentation. Static or one-time views of business processes can actually do more harm than good.

So, order up a process review for your organization. Be sure to have an extra helping of documentation review, and for best results, hold the egos.

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