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16 BPM best practices to ensure project success

A BPM approach to transformation enables companies to continuously improve and reinvent their business processes, injecting innovation as they go. Learn how to do it right.

Business process management, or BPM, is not a new discipline but opinions still vary on what exactly BPM encompasses. So, before we talk about BPM best practices, it is important to establish what business process management is -- and isn't -- and why it is important for businesses.

What is BPM and why is it important?

BPM is an approach to managing the business processes that organizations use to get work done. It is made up of methods, techniques and a variety of tools that deal with automated application support. While BPM includes enabling technology, it should be stressed that BPM is not a tool nor a way to build applications. It is a discipline for identifying, designing, analyzing, measuring, improving and monitoring business processes.

While BPM is a mature discipline, it is dynamic and has evolved as new process methods, technologies and business models have arisen. One of the aims here is to update the best practices of traditional BPM project execution to reflect these new ideas. This tip will explain how new technologies such as hyperautomation tools, a class of digital tools that includes intelligent business process management (iBPM) and robotic process automation (RPA), contribute to BPM's ability to drive continuous improvement and business transformation.

Due to the pace of change today, both continuous improvement and business transformation are key to achieving business success. Playing catchup is no longer a viable strategy -- things are changing too fast and the most successful companies are jumping ahead with new innovations.

Thus, to remain competitive, organizations must be able to respond quickly and effectively -- and improve operations as they change. This capability must become easy, fast, reliable and part of the organization's culture if the company wants to remain relevant to customers and achieve operational excellence.

So, the question becomes -- how do companies create and maintain the ability for cost effective, low risk and rapid business process and automation change? This is BPM's underlying value proposition. It enables you to continuously reinvent your business operations, injecting innovation as you go, and to do so over the long haul.

BPM seeks to improve business processes end to end.

BPM best practices from the project trenches

Maybe more so now than ever before, innovation and creativity will separate the companies that succeed from those that do not. BPM enables creativity by helping companies better understand their operations, letting them see and manage the complexities of business operations today, and providing the analytics to improve the business workflow and application support.

Importantly, BPM also helps companies prepare for the future as the BPM teams start building the capabilities that are identified in the future-state business design phase. Companies that can envision, model and evolve any idea quickly -- and then bring the best ideas to market -- will thrive in an era of rapid change and uncertainty. In fact, this kind of business agility arguably cannot happen without a BPM-supported process.

But it's important to do a BPM implementation right. The remainder of this article will be devoted to a detailed discussion of 16 best practices when using BPM concepts and techniques.

Getting started: Building a solid project foundation

The best practices that follow are based on actual project experiences from over 20 years in this industry. Let's get started.

1. BPM projects are business projects, not technology projects

The goals of a BPM project are typically cost reduction, operational streamlining, error elimination, rapid change and improved customer interaction. While technology updates and application development and enhancement are normally part of mid-to-large BPM initiatives, the primary focus of BPM projects should be business operations and organizational management. This ensures that direct, measurable business improvement can be continually delivered in a controlled manner as the business evolves.

Why is this needed? The objective of BPM is to enable changes in work and workflow with the goal of improving the business operation. BPM projects that are technology-centric often end up shifting the focus solely to business process automation with the goal of eliminating staff. Business-centric BPM projects, on the other hand, focus on streamlining operations, eliminating problems areas, product improvement, improved performance and better customer interaction to reduce cost.

What is the benefit of doing this? This best practice ensures the project remains business-focused and directs BPM improvement and innovation to work and workflow modification, allowing the improvement teams to keep business goals in the project spotlight. This focus also ensures that management's expectations are understood and met.

2. Form a collaborative management team of diverse people

Most, but not all, collaboration is good. If a collaborative group is not made of the right people, it can be a constraint rather than a help. A collaborative BPM group should be made up of the sponsor, the business managers affected by the project, an IT technical project manager to lead the application development or enhancement, a BPM process architect and a user experience architect. BPM collaborative groups are typically part-time, guiding projects while they also do their regular jobs. However, to be effective, all members of a BPM project collaborative group should receive BPM concept training to promote their understanding of what will happen in the project.

Why is this needed? Successful BPM projects engage a variety of people who bring different perspectives on both the business and how it should change. This diversity of opinion and experience will lead to more creativity and innovation.

What is the benefit of doing this? When projects fail to deliver on results it is often because the goals were ill-conceived -- impractical or too costly. A collaborative group made up of diverse people who bring different perspectives and can offer well-thought-out alternatives to ideas they disagree on can prevent serious missteps and level-set project expectations. In addition, diverse groups often generate more innovation and improvements when reviewing a BPM design than a homogenous group does.

3. Build a BPM Center of Excellence (COE)

A COE team is made up of experienced business process improvement professionals who understand BPM project execution, including both high-level BPM modeling and model decomposition (i.e., work breakdown). It includes experienced BPM project managers and experts in the use and capabilities of the automation technology (legacy and hyperautomation tools) that will be used in the BPM initiative. These COE experts function as internal consultants and join project teams on a part-time basis, allowing them to work on multiple projects concurrently.

Why is this needed? The specialized expertise needed to handle a BPM project resides in the COE. It's also where the project documentation is collected and stored. These documents include the BPM methodology, any past versions of the BPM methodology used for projects, business and IT standards, BPM technique management, hyperautomation tool capability lists, past project plans and other relevant documentation. Other process expertise such as Lean or Six Sigma is also often concentrated in the COE. These expert services will be offered to project leaders by the COE members, promoting consistency and the use of best practices throughout the BPM implementation.

What is the benefit from doing this? The COE group works hard to impart its knowledge to the project teams that individually could not afford these experts. BPM COEs reduce project risk and cost by applying both BPM methods and standards on a consistent basis to project teams. The consistency that is gained reduces outcome variance and project failure.

4. Control management expectations

Project scoping and planning is achieved through a negotiation involving three variables -- time, cost and features. Once these variables are negotiated, it is time to write a detailed, formal project statement that describes the project and defines its scope and deliverables. If the scope and objectives in this statement are too high level or nebulous, people will read things into the project. When the project is delivered without some of these assumptions, the affected managers will declare the project a failure. Therefore, it is important that deliverables be determined and the expectations formally defined in detail during the time, cost and feature negotiation -- along with how success will be defined. The project statement must then be agreed to by the senior management group and affected business area managers to build a firm expectation foundation.

Why is this needed? Language is imprecise and interpretive. The meaning of terms is often based on a person's background. The purpose of this activity is to avoid ambiguity and agree upon specific outcomes of the project. A well-thought-out project statement sets the foundation for success. It clearly states expectations and defines deliverables, along with what the project will accomplish. This improves cost and time estimates and predicts the staffing and expertise that will be needed. If any part of the project changes, the effect of the change should be calculated and the project statement adjusted accordingly.

What is the benefit of doing this? Many failed BPM projects fail because they didn't meet expectations that were misguided in the first place. A detailed, honest project statement that everybody signs off on guards against over-promising, unrealistic deadlines, arbitrary reduction targets, goals that do not add value and solutions that do not work as expected or deliver the expected value.

5. Use a formal -- and customized -- BPM methodology

BPM projects are often approached differently by each project manager, resulting in a wide variation of quality and success. To improve the success rate of BPM projects it is important that a formal BPM methodology be used to provide approach consistency. However, as with many things, one-size-fits-all methodologies don't work well. Because each project is unique, your methodology should be customized to reflect the organization's skills and experience and to eliminate unneeded phases or steps. Customization should start with a BPM/iBPMS methodology which is then augmented with activities from relevant disciplines -- e.g., business architecture, business process architecture, organization architecture, IT architectures (application/data/UX/interface) and user experience. This creates a specialized BPM methodology that in turn becomes the standard for the project. This customization is a key role of the specialists in your COE.  

Why is this needed? Methodologies provide common guidance and force consistency, discipline and rigor, making certain nothing is forgotten. Without a methodology, the project will be determined by the experience, knowledge and abilities of the project managers, which may be limited.

What is the benefit of doing this? The biggest benefit is that it avoids project drift and forces work to focus on business activities that contribute to a specific outcome. A formal BPM methodology also ensures that the work done in each step of the project contributes to the work done in the subsequent step or steps. In this way, the value of the work builds throughout the project to assure every activity has the things it needs when it is performed.

6. Create interdisciplinary teams

The creation of interdisciplinary teams is a critical success factor in BPM projects, especially for larger improvement and transformation projects. This ensures that a range of ideas, insights, concerns and recommendations are part of the discussion. Disciplines that need to work together include business and enterprise transformation, digital technology architecture, data architecture and user experience architecture. Other disciplines may be needed depending on the requirements of the project.

Why is this needed? BPM projects, as stated, are often large and complex and can affect most areas of the business operation. The participation of a diverse group of experts and business managers results in multiple viewpoints and ultimately creates more effective and efficient process solutions (see best practice #2).

What is the benefit of doing this? In addition to producing significantly better process designs, BPM solutions that are formed through interdisciplinary project teams typically result in less rework because the solutions are designed to be used by the people in the affected business areas -- not simply by outside automation developers or BPM specialists.

7. Ensure the quality of primary and supporting information in the models  

Confirm that the primary information in your BPM models and the supporting information are accurate and complete. Only information that can be certified by the source can be trusted -- e.g., if IT can't certify that the information in a database is good, then you must treat it as suspect information.

Why is this needed? Information that is of poor quality can compromise operational analysis, weakening the improvement design and prolonging the project as changes are challenged during the design review process. Poor information leads to poor decisions and inevitably to regrets as the duration of the project grows or the deliverables fail.

What is the benefit of doing this? "Let's go with the best information we have" is not worth the risk of losing hundreds, thousands or millions of dollars due to faulty information. It is also not OK to allow different groups to have a different understanding of common issues or standards.

8. Use accurate "current state" or "as is" business models

Some companies have complete, detailed, comprehensive business models, data source information and accurate application interface models. Most companies, however, do not. Without a comprehensive and accurate "current state" model, the team will not have a common understanding of the business operations in scope. They will simply not know enough about the way the processes really work, which is seldom how one thinks they work due to continuous change, to understand what needs to be improved.

Why is this needed? All managers will be able to tell a BPM project team how their area works at a high level. Few, however, can describe the operation at a detailed level -- what people do and why, the business rules, the variety of situations staff encounters or why variations occur. This is normal and it results from the constant lower-level changes in the business operation as people find ways to get the job done. Business improvement and operational streamlining, however, must be based on an accurate, comprehensive and extremely granular understanding of the business operation.

What is the benefit of doing this? You don't want to make assumptions in a BPM project: As noted, "This is the way it should work" is rarely how it does work. Information errors usually represent flaws in the process. If carried forward to the "future state" model, these flaws can result in serious design and construction problems and to solutions that do not operate as intended.

9. Use simulation modeling

Simulating the work and its flow provides significant information. It identifies choke points in the workflow, including places where people should be added or reassigned, redundant activity and areas where data delivery cadence is a problem. Simulation is often part of automated iBPM tools or it can be obtained through standalone automated simulation tools. For current state business analysis, this technique allows the project's process improvement teams to find opportunities for work streamlining, simplification, staff balancing and short-term fixes. For future state design work, simulation allows the design team to run "what if" scenarios to optimize the workflow and decision processes. For both current state and future state business designs, this technique allows management to simulate disruption scenarios and to build response capabilities.

Why is this needed? Simulation points out specific design and workflow flaws, allowing the design team to test, analyze and improve the current and future operating mode iteratively until an optimal model is found.

What is the benefit of doing this? Simulation modeling allows companies to quickly identify low- hanging-fruit improvements, to challenge assumptions in the design and brace for disruptions based on potential scenarios. For both improvement and transformation projects, this capability reduces work and post-construction iterations, improves design operating knowledge and helps the team try out design variations, comparing the results of the various designs.

10. Standardize your models -- that applies to content, format, symbols, techniques

In many companies, each BPM project team might have its own version of the symbols used in modeling their processes. Part of the reason for these variations is that many hyperautomation tools have built-in process modelers that might use different business process modeling notation (BPMN) symbols (with varying capabilities) from those of other process modelers. The same is true for project managers, who each might use symbols a little differently depending on their experience. The result is that the various models in a BPM project seldom fit together, making it difficult to get a picture of the entire process and to accurately track the impact of changes downstream and to see if the upstream activities will support the change. To address this issue, BPM models should follow standards for content and modeling.

To be consistent, modeling information should include a set of organized process models that break down every activity into its lower-level components to support multiple levels of detail -- process, sub-process, business function, actions performed in each function, a decomposition of actions into steps and steps into tasks.

When multiple processing options are available, the models should represent the options as scenarios performed under given conditions. Information shown in the models should be standard for each project and include aforementioned activities/actions/steps/tasks. Other information includes application use; data transfer from each system and its use (and transformation) as it is processed; volume and timing of data at each activity; problems and bottlenecks; and rules and performance measurement.

Why is this needed? Process models are the heart of any business change. As most processes are fairly large, it is likely that multiple discovery teams will be used to model the entire process end to end. In some cases, depending on scope, it is also possible that more than one BPM tool will be used as the flow moves among multiple departments -- some of which may have their own BPMS tool. The standardization of formats, content and information ensures consistency, supporting a common approach that also makes it easier to train team members and collaborating managers.

What is the benefit of doing this? The ability to easily combine models and information from different teams saves time, avoids misunderstanding and promotes the use of models.

BPM best practices
Use this checklist of BPM best practices to gauge your organization's business process management maturity.

Capabilities, performance measurement, IT and training

Now that you have a solid foundation for your BPM project, it's time to dive into performance measurement and training.

11. Identify, capture, vet and define all business capabilities and rules

A business capability refers to the ability to perform the activities required to deliver a service or a product. The difference between capabilities and activities is an important distinction. Activities are the actions that must be done to provide the deliverable. Capabilities are the things the organization must be able to do or have in order to perform the activity. The relationship between activities and capabilities is critical. To say that you need to perform something doesn't mean you can do it. If the activity cannot be performed, the new business process design will not succeed.

As with most things in business modeling, defining a capability requires breaking down the hierarchy of the actions that comprise it. At a high level, capabilities are somewhat nebulous. However, at successively lower levels of detail, they can become explicit.

Why is this needed? Capabilities identify the skills, knowledge, hardware, software and other things that must be available to successfully deliver a product or service. In large projects that evolve over time, a list of defined capabilities describing what must be available, when and what for is essential for enduring the activities can be performed.

What is the benefit of doing this? Aligning business capabilities to your work and business rules will eliminate unneeded steps, resulting in fewer design iterations, better quality and an improved understanding of the business operation -- today and in the future. By understanding what the team must be able to do at a given time, project management can better schedule training and work with IT to obtain the necessary tools.

12. Add performance measurement with clearly defined KPIs into the workflow models

Serious performance measurement begins with ensuring your process models have comprehensive, up-to-date accurate information. Equally important is ensuring that the comprehensive, up-to-date information is kept current throughout the project. As current state and future state BPM process models are created, identify what will be measured, why, how and where the data will come from.

Process mining technologies increase performance insights by applying AI and other analytics to the process data associated with your activities. It can require considerable effort to set up, but most organizations find that the data that can be obtained with process mining is very valuable. These tools can capture performance on a real-time basis so project members can monitor what's happening and take action if necessary.

Why is this needed? Not all change is good. Some attempts at improvement make things worse, which is why it's critical to measure performance. Even if a new process design seems to be beneficial, it may or may not improve performance and it may cause problems downstream in the overall process. It is possible to reduce staff and cost, for example, but not make the work or its flow more efficient. Performance monitoring helps to ensure that the new business design performs better than the old one. And it is vital to maintaining operational excellence in a process or workflow over time as the business evolves.

What is the benefit of doing this? Embedding KPIs in the workflow models helps you make immediate improvements in the current operation and helps refine performance management in the future state operation prior to and after delivery. Also, this work provides a foundation for the introduction of more advanced analytics and process mining as performance becomes more complex over time.

13. Determine all application use and interactions

Can you identify all the applications that are used in a process and who they are used by? Do you know what they are used for? Are some redundant? Are they well supported?

Most business processes use multiple application systems, each receiving and passing data and control to and from other applications and databases. Modifying applications or adding new applications can have an impact on business capabilities. A change might eliminate the automated supported needed to spur innovation, or suppress error reduction, or negatively affect a customer interaction. Thus, knowing everything you can about your current apps and their problems is critical in deciding whether the app should be modified, replaced or used as is.

Remember that in BPM-based improvement there is a difference between what can be done and what should be done. Making the correct decision depends on a thorough understanding of your application systems and the data that flows through them and doing an impact analysis before a business or digital change is finalized.

Why is this needed? Data flows through a series of automated applications and databases across interfaces between applications that are built using multiple technologies. This flow can become complex, and changes that are related (or unrelated) to the BPM project can modify how interfaces function, making simplification a priority in designing and constructing application support. Understanding these interfaces is a key step in making improvements to the process. Because of the frequent issues with interfaces, care should be taken in their design and construction, leveraging comprehensive testing.

What is the benefit of doing this? We are in the age of automation. Companies that fall behind in their use of digital technologies will not be able to effectively compete and will eventually lose their market relevance. In addition, companies that are constrained by their digital technology will be inefficient, ineffective and cost-heavy. Knowing how applications interact with one another and with databases, and how they support the business, can provide a significant advantage when implementing new applications or troubleshooting application support issues. This information will also point to places where application use and data flow become bottlenecks or places where both interfaces and edits allowed data errors to slip into the work and data flow.

14. Provide consistent training for team members

Faced with the rapid pace of change in business operations, technology and marketplaces, few companies have been able to keep up with employee training. This applies to training in digital technologies and in the procedures that must be followed to ultimately deliver a product or service. In their need to get the job done, companies sometimes resort to process workarounds. While these workarounds can keep business areas operating, they also can result in inefficiencies, higher costs and lower quality. We saw this most recently during the pandemic as companies scrambled to shift to a remote workplace operating model. Efficiency -- and training people in proper procedures -- was often a secondary consideration for many companies as they made the necessary adjustments. Now is the time to provide consistent training for all team members.

Why is this needed? The pace of change has created a gap between skills required to do business today and training people in these skills. Poorly trained people interpret the information they are given differently and apply it based on their interpretation, causing operational inconsistencies and a failure to take advantage of the business capabilities that were available to them.

What is the benefit of doing this? Improving everyone's understanding of the business and of the jobs they're expected to do also improves efficiency, effectiveness, and the quality of business and application deliverables, thus saving iteration time and operating costs. Education also helps promote employee retention, boosts morale and helps managers build high-performing teams.

15. Keep business models and supporting information up to date over time

Considerable detailed information is collected and generated during a BPM-based project as the teams move between the business areas involved in the scope of the project. These projects are also generally many months long when all the phases in the efforts and all of the iterations are considered. During this time, the business operations will change.

It is important that these changes be updated in the project's information files so the models and information remain accurate and relevant. It is also important that any changes be discussed with the project teams to determine if prior business operating designs or application support will need to be updated. The use of business process management software (BPMS) is necessary to help keep these models and information up to date. So is a deep commitment by the BPM team to accuracy and optimization.

Why is this needed? The business models and information in a BPM project are regarded as the single source of truth. This means that all models and information must be kept up to date for the duration of the project -- and after it is completed. Failing to adequately update models and information invalidates the models that have been produced as they will no longer be accurate, making the results of process mining of marginal value.

What is the benefit of doing this? Experience has proven that inaccurate models and information are worse than no information because you will not know what is right and what is wrong. Information validity is the foundation of a BPM project for all the reasons we have discussed above. By keeping the models and associated information up to date, the business retains its ability to compete and its ability to operate in a cost-effective manner.

16. Focus on the customer

Many businesses claim to focus on the customer, but they really don't, as evidenced by the long wait times and dropped calls all of us have encountered. Given the increasing competition in every industry, it is important in a BPM project to focus on the realities of customer interactions in your processes and to really understand the customer journey. The interaction points should be noted in the process models along with any problems associated with those touchpoints. Any of these customer interaction problems need to be reviewed and eliminated as soon as possible, with performance measurement put in place to stop them from creeping back into the new future state model and operation. To support this, a team of people who act as customers should be included in the model building, along with focus groups.

Why is this needed? Disgruntled customers have many ways to let the world know about problems with your company. A great many customer interaction problems can be identified and addressed during a BPM project, with problem points redesigned and properly supported with staffing and technology.

What is the benefit of doing this? In most companies, customer retention and satisfaction are major goals. It costs more to obtain a new customer than to keep the ones you have. Customer care considerations should be built into each operating model and into supporting information. If staff members are enabled to work directly with customers, both training and monitoring should be built into the business design to ensure their interactions are beneficial.

Successful BPM requires the integration of multiple disciplines

BPM-supported change is very different from other process-centric approaches. But because of BPM's integrative capabilities, it is possible to use its methods and techniques with other process-related approaches, using the strengths of each. This allows the project team manager to pull needed actions from different specialties and disciplines and mix them.

Project managers should therefore become familiar with the various approaches and their tools so they can define the mix of approaches that will optimize the way the project is executed. These include Lean, Six Sigma, simulation, process mining, Agile, Agile Sprints and RPA.

Daniel Morris, managing principal at Wendan Transformation Consulting, has served as the North American practice lead for business transformation at Infosys, Capco, Tata and ZS Associates and has been an executive consultant at IBM Global Services. In these roles, he has worked on more than 100 projects in multiple industries, training people in-house, at client companies and at conferences. Morris has coauthored six books and over 100 articles on business transformation. A featured speaker at business transformation conferences, he has served on the boards of the Business Architects Guild, the Association of Business Process Management Professionals (ABPMP), the PEX Advisory Board and the Forrester BPM Council. Along this journey, Morris has written major parts of the ABPMP architect and senior leader certification tests, and the BAA Enterprise Architect certification test, earning the designation of ABPMP Fellow. For additional information on any BPM related topic, please contact Dan at 630-290-4858, by LinkedIn or email him at [email protected]

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