14 November 2006

Business Process Re-Engineering. Successful?

I was recently approached by a fellow consultant professional to talk about how best to implement Business Process Re-engineering (BPR). BPR focuses on the efficiency of processes in business transactions and has similar roots with the Total Quality Management (TQM) movement. It attempts to investigate quality levels in each process within your entire system as defined by efficiency, smoothness, and flawlessness with the intended result of reducing costs and increasing customer satisfaction. The BPR attempt appears very noble and full of common logical sense. However the truth of the matter is that it has only been successful 30% of the time with most re-engineering efforts failing, resulting in drastically negative after-effects. Why?

The historical roots of BPR lie in Fredrick Taylor's Scientific Management theory and the time-motion studies which explored the question of "What is the best possible way to execute an action so that it is most efficient and effective?" The picture that comes to my mind is that of construction workers labouring away with their shovels timing themselves to perfection with each shovel action. I recall a moment in university when a friend who was in a wheelchair came up to me and joked that my profession was about "Watching assembly-line workers in their robotic routine and then asking them if they needed any bandaid." Although the proponents of BPR do argue that the effort is about high-level strategic processes, if you were to peel all of its layers like an onion you'd find that the term 'process efficiency' has a dangerously high resemblance to what I call 'humanized robotics'.

That said, I still believe that Business Process Re-Engineering is needed in our world of intense competition because competent individuals cannot function if the Set-Up in an organization is not strong (See my Strategic HR Success Model). More important than even a strong financial standing, Set-Up is about having a strong physical infrastructure where competent leaders can be free to innovate and perform. BPR can play a significant role in ensuring this aspect of a successful organization.

So why has it not been as effective as it is meant to be? Here are some thoughts accompanied by simple (but not easy) suggestions:

1. Adaptability is Capability. An increase in set processes is linked with a decrease in intelligent adaptability. We've all heard about how important it is to adapt personally to situations that current processes might not handle. Don't get caught up in detailing every business process when you train your staff members. Instead, train them to adapt based on guidelines centred around your organization's performance values. The key to a smooth and flawless environment is not just clean processes but rather the flexibility people use in adapting around them to meet the need of the hour.

2. Want to Dominate? Then Innovate. The most common negative after-effect of a business process re-engineering effort is the loss in innovation and creativity. This goes beyond adaptation and into the realm of continuous innovation, which I consider to be the one sure factor that will get your organization where it wants to reach. If you must re-engineer your business processes it would be wise to leave room for your employee's creative insights to come through them. Creativity is often stifled with the chances of increased bureaucracy and top-down management styles as a result of bad process re-engineering.

3. Documentation is Not Communication. Another misnomer is our naturalistic business tendency to document A to Z of what goes on in the company. The concept of business processes directly gets translated to more paperwork, filing, signatures, and a wastage of much needed spatio-temporal territory! With an increased risk of a high power-distanced top-down bureaucratic organizational structure as a result of BPR, two-way communication goes out the window. So why waste time on typing up that customer feedback report that has to get signed by all 15 board members? Have the conversation and type up those next action steps instead.

4. Big BPR, Big Expectations. Here is the no.1 reason BPR is only mildly successful to an organization's bottom-line. Most managers get so excited about the prospect of changing their company's business process infrastructure that they don't care to run pilot tests. "This is big!" they exclaim, and set out to drastically alter the company's systems (as with ERP systems) once and for all as a panacea for an organization's ineffective areas. Big expectations are almost always shot down when leaders realize that their BPR did not account for important human dynamics where diverse individual capability is irreconcilable with drastically new protocols because employees who are affected by them were not asked for their input.

5. From Process Deployment to People Development. I saved the most important point for last so that it would be most salient in your minds. Before thinking about how your business process can be improved, give a thought to how your people can be improved. Excellence is beyond a process efficient transaction in our ever-changing multidimensional world. Develop excellence in your people, and they will develop excellent business models that are efficient, adaptable, and allow for innovation, transparency, and dynamic action-oriented dialogues in place of process-oriented dogmatic documenation.

I have always maintained that businesses have a duty to contribute to the national economy of their nations, and this translates to the empowerment of people across gender and ethnicity. This may seem like a farfetched idea when one talks about BPR but I truly believe nothing exists in isolation. It is people who should drive processes but the research has shown that people are enslaved by them instead.


Post a Comment

<< Home