How to Develop a Business Process

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By Peter Hilton

Tips for avoiding the traps of business process development

Although developing a process can sound straightforward, there are a number of traps waiting to catch you out. This article offers some tips.

The model is not the process

Developing a business process means having people do their actual work according to that process. Influencing how people do their work is a hard problem that attracts high salaries and is called Management.

Developing a business process model, on the other hand, is so much easier that you risk spending too much time on it and developing a process model that you will not be able to translate to the workflow.

Therefore, the first step is to focus on the end goal. That is not a diagram.

Start simple

Now, whether you are modelling from scratch or looking at how people actually do their work, start with the simplest possible version of the process you have in mind. This is no more than a statement of the end goal, such as Ship product to customer.

Next, before you proceed to add detail to the model, get everyone involved.

Involve everyone

Ivory tower process modelling is appealing to some, but risks failure to survive contact with reality. Instead, use the trivial model that you started with to engage people in a conversation about how the work actually works. The people who know most about the work are (collectively) the people who do it.

‘Everyone’ doesn’t necessarily mean everyone, but you won’t know who’s involved in the business process until the model is far more detailed. In any case, this certainly includes more organisational roles than process analyst.

In practice, however, there’s a difference between what people say they do, and what they actually do.

Get feedback from the actual work

A good way to involve the people who do the work in developing a process model is to use a workflow management or case management tool to provide software support for process execution.

When the initial process model only has a single step that represents the whole process, then tool support lets you track the whole cases as they are started and completed. Adding the tasks and integrations within those cases is the next step.

Iterate the model together with the actual work

Only now that you have a (trivial) process model that you can actually use in practice, and involvement from people who understand the work, can you safely add detail to the model.

Since managing people, a.k.a. ‘herding cats’, and any kind of change is harder than modelling, you may benefit more from making changes to the actual work before updating the model to reflect those changes, rather than the other way around.

Most importantly, each time you work on a case (i.e. execute the process), you potentially update the model as a result, either to add useful detail, to add automation, or to improve the process model.

Choose flexible tools

You cannot achieve the above with software tools that are based on creating a model diagram, and implementing the model with custom software development that is expensive and time-consuming to change. Instead you need software that:

  • lets you start quickly, with no set-up
  • is easy to use, so you don’t need training before you start
  • lets you iterate between designing and executing a process model
  • lets you work with multiple people in your organisation.

Signavio Workflow is the result of this long story: simplified workflow modelling and execution that you can use to develop not just a process model but an actual running business process.