Performing Processes: Four Core Questions
Everything we do in the name of business process management is, or should be, about process performance management. The point, the only point, is to improve and sustain organizational performance through enhanced process performance delivering proven, valued, business benefits. If that's not the deliverable then, by our own definitions, everything is waste.
Establishing a process performance management regime that is both pragmatic and meaningful is not easy. The good news is that it can be done well.
In any form of performance management there are four core questions that shape what we mean by both performance and management:
- What has happened so far?
- What performance do we want?
- What performance could be possible?
- What can we reasonably expect?
Let's unpack each of those in the context of process performance management.
What has happened so far?
This is the no-brainer, the easiest part of all — and often the bit we put most effort into because it's … the easiest part of all.
Of course, we must collect, analyze, and report the process performance data. We need to know the current levels of performance and what changes and trends we can see, looking backward. Were those changes anticipated? Has process performance been stable? Has our management of the process been good enough?
There is much to be gained by having a deep understanding of what has happened to a process so far, and why that has been the case.
If we ever want to make changes to a process, sometimes very significant changes, we must learn as much as we can from its performance history. Making changes to a process we don't understand well is dangerous; we might kill the process rather than improve it.
Clearly, it is important to know what has happened in relation to performance of a process. However, we need to know much more than what has already happened. Our task is to manage the future, not the past.
What performance do we want?
What would good look like?
What do the stakeholders want from the process? If the process was working as well as the key stakeholders would like it to, what would it be doing and how would we know? [BTW, that implies we know who the stakeholders are; we know who cares, or should care, about the performance of the process — that's a subject for another column.]
For any process we want to actively manage we need clear, objective, measurable process KPIs and related targets.
Note that these are "process KPIs" and are probably quite different to most of the functional KPIs that most organizations have in some form. We are looking to measure, track, and predict the performance of a business process, not a business unit, a project, a team, or some other functional entity.
Setting process KPIs and targets (indeed, any KPIs/targets) draws on information and insights from multiple sources — customers, regulators, staff, competitors, non-customers, etc. KPIs must be measuring something that is essentially important about the performance of the process, some aspect of process performance that should be improved (or at least maintained).
The assigned process KPIs are going to be hugely influential in driving management of the process. So, they must be carefully shaped and regularly reviewed.
Process KPIs tell us what should be happening, but we need to be careful not to let them limit our imagination of what could be possible.
What performance could be possible?
Don't stop at "good" — what would extraordinary look like?
Just because all the KPIs are green and everyone is happy doesn't mean that the process performance can't be improved, perhaps in radical ways. Process KPIs and their targets need to be challenged.
In some discussions about process improvement, it seems that it is only about small changes and, if you want big change, you must go for innovation which is seen to be something quite different. This is not helpful.
Rather, think of process improvement happening across a range from small changes to very large changes.
A financial services organization might discover ways to reduce the time to respond to a customer request from three weeks to three days. A significant breakthrough; congratulations all round.
Just before we move on to make that change though, can we push harder and go beyond stakeholder expectations? What if we changed the process execution time from three weeks to three clicks?
If there is a business case for doing so, there need be no hesitation in delivering process performance beyond the wildest dreams of stakeholders!
What can we reasonably expect?
What we really want to know is what will happen next in the performance of a process under active management. "What will happen next?" is an essential question of any management.
A stable process is one where its performance can be predicted, with a high level of confidence, to be within known limits unless something changes. We can be sure that such a process will continue to operate within those limits absent a change.
Sure, we can and should learn from past performance, but we really demonstrate effective process management when we are able to reliably predict future process performance with useful certainty.
Of course, performance may be predictable but not acceptable. Being predictable just means that we can be confident that we have a good idea what will happen next. Whether that outcome optimizes performance is a different question.
In practice …
How can we derive practical benefits from these insights? Here are some suggestions:
- Ask all four questions. Process KPIs and their targets should be subject to regular and serious challenge. Find the sweet spot between what is happening, what should be happening, and what could be happening.
- Ask the stakeholders what 'perfect' would look like and see how close you might get to that (with a positive business case, of course).
- Don't be satisfied with reporting performance outcomes, no matter how elegantly done. Take the next step and predict performance.
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