Leadership

The failed promise of Business Process Management (BPM)

Business Process Management software is a great idea that can help you optimize processes for greater efficiency. So why do most BPM initiatives fail or fizzle out?

Business Process Management (BPM) software is one of those great ideas that never really seems to gain the traction it warrants. BPM looks great on paper: Capture and map all your existing processes, both physical and technological, in an integrated application, and you'll be able to track performance, automate workflow, and gradually optimize those processes for greater efficiency. Not only do you gain visibility to every aspect of your enterprise, but opportunities for improvement become readily apparent. So why do most BPM initiatives fail or fizzle out?

Process management isn't sexy

Perhaps the biggest reason BPM fails is that it holds little appeal to key decision makers and top management. While few among these ranks would argue with the importance of effective and efficient processes, from a leadership perspective managing the details of executing a process should come part and parcel with middle management. Just as Captain Picard on Star Trek would issue an order, then quip "make it so," senior leadership assumes their dictates will be carried out efficiently and effectively and has little interest in the details. There's some measure of guilt by association when attempting to get funding for BPM software, with management wondering why software is required to perform a task that's considered a baseline activity for their underlings.

Results trump process

The bane of anyone who's ever compiled a simple process map is the exception. Every junior business analyst has crafted what they believe is the perfect flowchart representation of a process, only to review it further and identify a raft of exceptions that litter their Visio masterpiece with convoluted decision trees in Rube Goldberg-like fashion. While these exceptions are generally inelegant, they're often the result of a demand to complete a function in a rapid manner, usually with end-customer revenue at stake. That one-off spreadsheet and strange invoicing procedure might not leverage the corporate ERP system, but they were able to quickly capture customer revenue at some point.

Inelegant exemption processes often were the quickest way to fulfill a customer demand. Doing the detailed and diligent work required to diagram these in BPM software might be more of a problem than it's worth; these exceptions are often the result of customer requirements that are no longer valid, or machinations that customers should be charged for rather than eating revenue through back-office gyrations.

Processes are organic

Combined with customer- or leadership-driven exceptions, another major challenge to BPM software is that most processes grow and evolve organically. Everything from a new intern to a tweak to a product or marketing campaign might trigger a change in a process that instantly renders your BPM software out of date. When BPM is driven by a party external to the process, like IT or a cross-company process team, there's little chance of that team being notified as the process evolves.

So, can BPM be effective?

Most process-focused efforts, from BPM software to the various process improvement methodologies, can be effective if the following three factors are in place:

  1. There's a strong top to bottom motivation to improve processes, either to save costs, comply with government regulation, or avoid litigation.
  2. Process improvement efforts are combined with IT projects, and are strongly desired by the affected business unit.
  3. The processes in question are straightforward, with minimal exemptions and minimal likelihood of ad hoc changes (building an automobile versus selling an automobile, for example).

While this list may seem overly restrictive, BPM efforts that think they'll have captured every process and exception, and will be well on their way to large-scale optimizations in a matter of months, are unlikely to succeed, as are "process improvement teams" that have no leadership backing or interest among the business units they're meant to serve.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

11 comments
adamBPM
adamBPM

This is EXACTLY what Nebri OS has been built to circumvent. Because we had terrible trouble getting various BPM suites running in startup, then plenty of difficulty integrating, we threw our hands up. A couple years later we tried again. Same thing. So we decided to program an event based BPM tool. It's extremely different, but allows instant usage as soon as the first rule is programmed into the system. http://nebrios.com to check it out. 

The the lack of organic integration, resilience to errors, CEP, rule management and more in traditional tools just killed us. The Nebri angle on things is seriously interesting and we are still learning about what it can do for people. 

chichin277
chichin277

Well there are various softwares about BPM and obviously,IBM is the most popular one . But a few days ago I checked bizagi http://www.bizagi.com It is the cool one to try. And i was impressed with their service and the quality of their products. The BPM Analytics should try it once.

somicsgroup
somicsgroup

Business Process Management fails to express in step by step process of content software. If you focus on project to express of following steps regarding project testing, coding, security etc... all the things, definitely i won't fails... you will get better result...

Paul Dandurand
Paul Dandurand

@mcarr, I strongly agree with you that there's a value in allowing anyone to make updates. In some cases where compliance is a driver, there would most likely be an approver or monitor. I also understand that processes are organic. I was just saying, to Patrick's point, that many BPM tools are geared more towards less organic types of processes. I was speaking with a business friend yesterday about this topic and she made a good point that most BPM software is really a subcategory of BPM that should be called BPA (or BPMA) for Business Process Automation. There are other subsets of BPM that are also process oriented, but people-touch focussed with a more dynamic approach conducive to an organic process environment. She made a good point.

mcarr
mcarr

@Paul Dandurand, I think the point was that processes are organic - if not, they would be far easier to categorise and therefore constrain. Also, the applicability of managing a set of processes with a particular BPM tool is a characteristic of the processes rather than the tool, just as the desire to drive badly or well isn't inherent to the car you're behind the wheel of. Finally, the ability for just anyone to make updates is a strength, not a weakness. Consistency, predictability, universal applicability etc. all need to be considered when contemplating change.

Fairbs
Fairbs

BPM isn't isolated to IT so you can't say that it has failed. Manufacturing has been grinding out efficiency using BPM for decades and is typically to the point of diminishing returns. I don't think IT can effectively drive process improvement activities beyond its borders. As part of a project, ownership of BPM has to come from the business unit. IT can still have a hand in it, but someone on the business side has to promote it.

viveka
viveka

I have not seen a metric measuring the affectivity of BPM - though BPM itself has a lot of process metrics. There are some implementations of process disciple, that often leads to rigidity, and nicely called (at times!) as process compliance. If BPM could be measured as "management by exception", this would be a well-designed process. Now how we get to this point could evolve (be organic), or prescriptive or something in between!

Paul Dandurand
Paul Dandurand

Patrick, you hit it on the head when you say most BPM initiatives are not organic. The challenge with many BPM tools is that they are complex and not dynamic enough to keep up with the real-time change needs of many business processes. Is it be fare to say that most BPM tools are not made for people interaction (entire team) with process improvement? I say this because many tools require a specialist to update the processes with business process engine rules. This lack of dynamic updates by people may be one reason why BPM struggles to be organic. @BPMredux. I'm curious how you would describe BPM today. Process improvement for profitability will always capture senior leadership attention. I agree that process improvement is very important for all business processes including operations, cost, risk, and knowledge management. However, don't be harsh on an author's scope when the intent of the article does a good job making a point.

otleyangel
otleyangel

one word, kaizen? ....towards better understanding - means continuous improvement, adaptive organic change, behaviour focused, top-down/bottom up-driven. Without this type of culture and the discipline and rigour it nurtures then BPM is unsustainable. For more years than I care to remember I have seen too many software projects masquerading as Organisational Development initiatives to improve processes fail through the joint pitfalls of obsessive over-specification of "requirements" and lack of follow through in post-implementation phases, if they ever get that far!! The repeated failure of our NHS systems over decades is a very real example of this. Put simply, a wise sage once said "... to many decisions are measured with a micrometer, marked out in chalk and cut with an axe..." Isn't it ironic that the very word process that implies a cyclic, repetitive mechanism is so often implemented as a one off project in BPM? ...John

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

a failure of the way it was automated and then how that automation was used. Quite a few years ago I was involved in a few BPM projects but before it was automated. Then it was best described as: Capture and map all your existing processes, both physical and technological, in an integrated document set, and you’ll be able to track performance, simplify workflow, and gradually optimize those processes for greater efficiency. Not only do you gain visibility to every aspect of your enterprise, but opportunities for improvement become readily apparent. Which is virtually the same description as you have. However, in those days computers were worth many millions of dollars and took up one or more floors of the building. The BPM process was all done on paper and stored in folders for quick reference. Once everything was fully documented the project team then had to see how the various forms and documents could be made a lot simpler by seeing what information could be dropped from them without any adverse effects. We also looked at what could be done to use the one document in multiple areas so information was only written down the once. Workflows were studied to see where they could be made more efficient and also where things might be dropped as no longer being required. For example, if a process required three forms and much of the information was the same and it was possible to merge them to one form and have each area just add to the form, then the section where the second and third form was initiated could be done away with as they were no longer needed, or reduced as they now only entered a fraction of the data. At every stage of the BPM those involved at the work face were involved in discussions on how to improve the system. Changes were documented and implemented, and their effects as against their intended effects documented. Once the whole system was checked, changed, and reviewed, it was allowed to settle down and then reviewed and adjusted as required. True BPM required constant attention and regular reviews for relevance and new changes due to changing operations or situations. In each case where we used BPM the operations became much more effective and the staff happier as it reduced the paperwork required while increasing productivity. But, as I said, we did all this with paperwork and not computers. I suspect the failure of automated BPM systems is not the concept of BPM but the mind set that an automated process will tell you where to make changes and what changes to make. The truth is every single work situation has its own unique aspects and what may work for company A in and industry will NOT work for company B in the same industry. Thus the BPM system needs to be managed and directed by a small team of knowledgeable staff appropriate to the company and the industry. So if anyone put in the software and expected it to tell them what to do to be successful, they were whistling in the wind and wasting their time and money. The only things an automated BPM can offer is a reduction of the paperwork to record the data, a uniform recording and presentation process, an ability to quickly enter changes, an ability to allow multiple user acces, and a good one should offer some sort of system modelling capability; but it still needs a smart person to use it and decide what needs to be done with the data in it.

BPMredux
BPMredux

Perhaps the reason why BPM continues to fail above all the reasons you've given is because the view you've painted is stuck in the past. BPM is far more than just drawing pretty maps or workflow diagrams, or process improvement for profitability. Where is the discussion on adaptive case management, the CoE, process mining, education, enterprise social workflow, COO buy in ? The article mentions very little of where BPM is today, I suspect that's because you aren't aware, reads more like it was written by a junior business analyst than a consultant. @bpmredux

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