Like a fingerprint, no one business process is exactly like another, and the various business process projects across an organization can bog down even the most efficient IT departments. Without the right methods in place, prioritizing these processes and selecting a business process management (BPM) tool can be equally as time-consuming. In order to maximize the value of a BPM infrastructure, organizations can take two distinct approaches to find the right fit: top-down or bottom-up. The top-down approach considers the larger goals and directions of the organization, while the bottom-up approach looks for the tactical benefits of a project. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but the steps taken in each decision ultimately help an organization find the right fit at the right time.


BPM Project Selection Doesn’t Have to Be a Slippery Slope


Many organizations struggle with the best method to prioritize business process projects across their organizations. Because selecting business process projects is like finding many gold nuggets to select from, one can become distracted in selecting which nugget fits best in one’s limited pockets. For many organizations, it seems as though they are always becoming involved with multiple projects at once. Consequently, they are looking for ways to really evaluate and prioritize which process teams should become involved while suggesting the best route up the process slope. Once a BPM project-selection process is established, organizations look for ways to communicate the process across the functional areas, in hope of developing a clear understanding of how the business process teams will manage projects and the project-selection process. Depending on the approach that fits your culture at a specific point in time, there are a number of ways to prioritize BPM projects.


Climbing the Slope from the Bottom Up


There is the bottom-up approach that looks for tactical benefits. In the absence of a governance board to help select process projects, some companies rate the process projects on an expected rates of return. Most organizations look for internal rates of return in the 15 to 20 percent range that pay back in less than a year. This eclipses most hurdle rates (the rate you can invest in the market with little effort). Typically, BPM-enabled process projects are tightly scoped around local benefits and functional excellence. This is quite normal for the first few BPM projects that are trying to prove their worthiness and enjoy the benefits of good process management. However, narrow scoping has two side effects, minimally, that are not good. First, there is money left on the table, and certain client benefits are not represented because the complete process is not considered and quite often stops at functional and/or organizational boundaries where the domain/control of the responsible manager stops. Secondly, there will be collisions with other organizational units and other future process projects with their resulting processes as they are built out later from the bottom up. I have received many inquiries about this phenomenon during my five-plus years of covering BPM. I call it suboptimization.


A multifunctional governance board generally works best as trade-offs in the context of larger business goals and processes reduce the risk of suboptimization. The practice of coming to this board with a context model or "T" process model helps in understanding the overall impact of one functional process versus another in context. This means that one scopes subprocesses in light of the overall process instead of bottom-up process improvements without a proper process context. This best practice is called “T” modeling and requires the process design be done as a shallow cross-functional exercise. This is then followed up by completing deeply focused process implementations that deliver maximum time-boxed results without suboptimizing the overall end-to-end process. Without a governance board or a scientific ranking by ROI and/or time to market, the selection process is left in the waves of a political ocean.


Having a Top Rope Helps Scale Larger Slopes Safer


There is also a top-down approach that considers the larger goals and directions of the organization and the cross-functional processes that have the most to bear in leveraging the organization’s strengths and/or shoring up weakness. This approach starts with the five most important processes to the company (e.g., order to cash, risk underwriting or customer service). These processes vary based on industry within a competitive marketplace. It is also important not to try and “boil the ocean” with the top-down approach. Once the most impact-laden cross-functional process is selected, then the decision to try a “big bang” approach or a phased approach of rolling out subprocesses with logical expected payback schedules is appropriate. The governance board and “T” modeling still apply here, but the focus is different.


An example of this would be automating a claim adjuster information-gathering process without considering a claim as a business event that happens to a client. A good process, from a client point of view, would be to dispatch a rental car and a tow truck to the scene of a fender-bender accident. In turn, the process would send updates to the client’s chosen form of communication channel/device as the claim progresses through to the actual payment deposited directly to a client-designated bank account while the car was sent to the body shop of the client’s preference. In the event the client chose to use the company-sponsored body shop, progress updates with pictures/images would also be sent to the client with an expected delivery date. While the implementations of the overarching process would create a huge transformation of the claims process and be expensive to pull off, intermediate benefit delivery could phase it to reality. While considering the whole process is the right thing to do in the long run, most prudent managers would start with a small piece, such as the information gathering process for a claims adjuster.


Planting the Flag at the Top

The selected approach depends on the history of BPM at your company and the overall corporate culture. The organizations with planning cultures like to implement the top-down approach unless they have failed at one of these kinds of efforts in the past. Organizations new to BPM, or ones who like incremental approaches that pay as they go, like the bottom-up approach unless they have run into cross-functional road blocks. Sooner or later, organizations will have to look from the top in order to glean the full benefits of a process-focused organization that makes incremental improvements for continued return on investment (ROI), without taking the organizational eye off the ball of finding the better way to please their constituents through process excellence.


It would be important to provide a process model for the BPM project selection process along with governing bodies and/or policies, so there is little confusion about the selection process. Without this, each organization will pursue its own functional excellence to the detriment of the whole organization.


Keeping Your Balance at the Top


The governing body must represent the wants and desires of the important process constituents. This would include customers, partners, vendors, employees and stock holders. There are a number of ways of assisting this governance group.


One way would be to leverage constituent focus groups that would be given the open-ended task of defining an ideal process to serve them and the way they want to interface with your organizations processes. This requires more than superficial integration of the worlds of structured process support and ad-hoc personal and collaboration methods and tools. The fundamentally chaotic nature of the individual work process has to be embedded within the enterprise process view. It may require a refocus of attention on user interaction that might be accomplished via instant messaging, threaded discussions and events management based on circumstance and location. The collaborative nature of the next-generation process is vital to the success of organizations going forward.


Another way is to practice competitive benchmarking. Traditional goal-setting approaches to process excellence can fall short if blindsided by the competition. Superior process performance should also include the search for best practices, regardless of the industry they reside in. Benchmarking looks at successful process behavior and is a positive and proactive activity. This requires a deep understanding of internal processes, planned incremental improvements and how this compares to a number of external processes. This is not a one-time activity but requires constant vigilance. The steps involved with benchmarking include knowing your processes, knowing the leading processes in your industry, knowing the competitors processes, incorporating the best of each and gaining superiority.


Attempting to become a process-focused organization is a journey that involves taking initial steps successfully. Most organizations will start with a bottom-up effort. One guided by a top-down strategy would be ideal, but the middle ground is to practice looking at the context of a process more carefully.

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