At Select Technology we are keen to help our South East and Kent-based customers succeed not just through the technology they use, but by optimising business processes. A key principle of this is “don’t automate the problem – solve the problem and automate the solution”.
It can be very tempting when faced with a problematic process to simply ‘automate it away’, to have your IT do it for you so you don’t have to think about it. That might solve the immediate, short-term pain of having to deal with the process, but will not actually solve the problem. All you have really achieved is automating the execution of a problem.
The Select Technology Process Maturity Model
To understand where our customers are with their processes we use a six stage maturity model. Before we can start to assess anything, we need to be clear what a business process actually is.
What is a business process?
A business process is “a collection of activities that takes one or more kinds of input and creates an output that is of value to the customer” (Hammer & Champy, 1993). That’s rather dry language, but here’s what it means in practice:
- Respond to a trigger – something happening to start the process
- Probably receive some kind of input – this could be physical or digital, and not all processes have inputs (we’ll come back to that*)
- Involve doing something – if there are no actions there is no process
- Possibly consume resources – time, electricity, licences, materials…
- Produce or change something in a way that adds value – this is the output
*A note on processes with no inputs. There are process purists who dispute these are possible but consider this example: A climber on a hill gets lost and hits the Emergency Services Beacon app on his phone. Hitting the button is a trigger, not an input, and everything the phone does after that uses its own resources – it calculates its position from GPS signal, perhaps connects to a database to find out which service to notify, and it sends the signal. The user has added nothing but pressing the trigger, and everything after that is generated by further actions in the process.
A user guide to the Select Technology Process Maturity scale
Now we’ve established that, we can take a look at how we distinguish where a process sits on the scale…
Chaotic is perhaps a strong word. What we mean is things that get done but no one can say with certainty how or sometimes even by whom. Every business has these, and in some cases it is OK – there is, after all, little benefit in defining the coffee making process unless you are a coffee shop. However, in more important processes this can be a real problem. If you don’t know how something is done you have no way of ensuring consistency, no way of measuring success and no way of understanding your costs.
This is where most business processes sit, especially (but certainly not exclusively) in small businesses. These are processes that a few people, or perhaps only one person, know intimately and execute regularly. They do not have any documentation on how to do the process because they do it all the time. After all, people who have been driving for years don’t check the Highway Code every time they come to a junction – they intuitively know what to do.
Habitual processes are the easiest to execute, but they are the hardest to get a real handle on. In our experience, when you ask someone to draw out a habitual process they are quickly surprised by how complex it becomes. The human brain is an amazing tool for storing all the variables and adapting quickly to changing circumstances. Sadly, it’s less amazing at explaining everything it’s doing to someone else. Thinking again about the experience of driving, imagine trying to explain why you eased off the accelerator approaching a junction – it would require you to first be conscious that you were doing it, and unless you’re very new to driving you probably did it subconsciously.
For management, what that means is it is quite difficult to truly understand your costs, and near impossible to measure the efficiency of a process. Since everything happening is instinctive, the process changes every time, and the outputs vary accordingly. And just like that driver at a junction, sometimes it can go horribly wrong and no one can really explain why.
There is one way that the driving analogy doesn’t work. Modern cars are carefully designed to monitor, alert and report on what’s happening. Every action is logged and you have a literal dashboard telling you what’s happening in and around the vehicle. Habitual processes tend to have none of this, and when it comes time to audit or report at best you have a huge manual exercise, and at worst you have nothing to show.
Now we start to see something documented and better understood by management. A controlled process will have known triggers, inputs, actions and outputs. These are commonly drawn out in a Process Diagram created using software such as Microsoft Visio. The act of drawing a diagram will tend to raise questions and challenges along the lines of “actually, why do we do that?” and “is that really everything?”. These will start the process of optimisation.
Controlled processes are easier to explain and hand over, and they are easier for management to understand. They can also serve as the basis for improvements in other processes, in particular identifying where the same things are happening multiple times in different processes. A common example of that is in goods receipt where the order is checked for accuracy, then the goods are checked in a mail room, then checked again by the recipient, then the invoice is compared against the order. Bringing all these steps together to create a controlled process can eliminate duplicated effort.
‘Optimised’ is a rather subjective term. How do we know that a process is completely optimised? In short, we don’t. There is always likely to be some more improvement or refinement that could be made to a process. Nonetheless, we think an Optimised process is one which has been reviewed by all the parties and which achieves what it needs to in the most efficient way.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French writer and pilot. He was talking about story-telling when he said the quote above, but it is a good guiding principle in process optimisation. To optimise a process, we define what happens now (the Controlled process), the inputs received and the outputs created, and then at each step establish whether we really need to do it. We look at whether the people involved really need to be involved – are they adding value or is the process wasting their time? – and we look at whether the decisions are made at the right time and by the right people.
Generally, an optimised process will be shorter than the controlled process from which it evolved. It should involve less, and certainly no more, people and where it does need human action it should seek to empower people to act without escalating to the senior team.
An optimised process should enable proper metrics. Having optimised, we should be able to say not just what the metrics are, but how we will report against them. That usually involves creating or using a data set of some kind. This has the extra benefit of also creating auditable data which has value of its own, as well as simply reporting against the process.
A well optimised process is the foundation for automation. As we said at the start, there is no point automating a problematic process, so to get to automation we first go through the control and optimisation stages (which can sometimes be done in an hour – it doesn’t have to be an extended activity). There are many ways to automate a process, and many options with each step. Our Digital Transformation Consultant advises on the best approach to each problem, and then works with the customers and our Professional Services team to deliver the solution.
The benefits of automation are hopefully clear – less time spent on routine activity means more time to be creative, to reach new customers, to focus on amazing your existing customers and to create new offerings.
At the outer edge of business process enhancement is AI – artificial intelligence. This can seem like a huge leap for many businesses, but it’s not as terrifying as it sounds. We use Microsoft AI capabilities embedded in the Power Automate tool to perform actions. This takes some ‘training’ of the AI system and should not be undertaken lightly. But if you get it right, you can use it to recognise text and create new data records (read an email and create an opportunity, perhaps?), predict outcomes, translate between languages and much more. There’s more information on Microsoft’s site, including the licence prices.
Involving AI in your process, if done correctly, can create ‘managed variability’. That’s a fancy way of saying it can cope with the unexpected. Conventional automated processes tend to need to consider every option in advance. The best they can cope with is to assign to a human when they get stuck. Managed variability means that you can teach the AI what to do and it will make decisions accordingly, but importantly within the boundaries you set. You can always require the AI to come and ask a human in some circumstances.
Every business process has its own needs, importance and value. Not everything needs to move up the maturity scale, and many businesses are hesitant about the costs and perceived (if not actual) risks of using AI. But we believe that getting the best from your technology means understanding and maturing your set of processes and we help our customers do so every day.