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Should businesses strive to perfect their business processes?

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From Process Cafe, should businesses strive to perfect their business processes?

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  • Nope.


    This post still applies really but Gary makes the ultimate point his description of the law of diminishing returns: An amount of time and energy can be spent reviewing, revising, improving, and implementing processes, but on further review it is discovered that they are only 80% of the way there. To move the process the remaining 20% will take a disproportionate amount of time and energy, sometimes to the point that it becomes economically unwise to pursue.

    However the very fact that organisations are now striving to be as adaptive to rapidly fluctuating conditions as much as possible means processes will be forever changing so trying to create one perfect instance is complete folly.

    Like Gary said, there are exceptions, and in a reverse of what we usually pray as a mantra, 80% of processes need to be imperfect and adaptable and only 20% should be perfected.

  • What Theo said. I'm not a 6 Sigma evangelist, but it is an issue of diminishing return versus level of effort. I call it "the stuff around the edges," the stuff that can nickel and dime a project to death. Go for the "low hanging fruit," the "80/20" stuff, call it day unless a really savvy power user points out a nifty enhancement, expend effort on more valuable outcomes elsewhere.

    Cheers, Pat

  • Having adaptable processes, just is perfect!

  • Strive? Perhaps, though Theo is spot-on in pointing out that rapidly-changing conditions means perfection is a constantly moving target.

    Instead, I advise my clients to adopt more of a "good enough is good enough" kind of mentality, not in the least because after a point, spending more to get better probably won't return enough benefit to make the investment worthwhile.

  • Ideally yes but practically the last 5-10% of perfection is too costly given constant business changes. I see organizations spin many cycles to eek out benefit which goes away once complete. Totally agree with Emiel, having adaptable is the right approach. However, I would argue that at the atomic level you need the six sigma approach, extremely low defect, as those become building blocks for the whole business(es).........

  • What an interesting discussion! I am glad to see so many comments supporting the idea that knowledge workers actually perform best when they have the flexibility to change the way they accomplish something.

    It has a been a standard knee-jerk reaction for past decades to believe that turning the office into a factory that performs everything exactly the same way every time is the "ideal". Some here claim that perfection should be avoided as a "practical matter". But there is more to it than that.

    Nicholas Nassim Taleb has a new book called "Antifragile" which describes systems that are not fragile, and not just robust, but actually GAIN from randomness. A forest is healthy only if it burns down occasionally. Preventing forest fires actually makes the forest WORSE. Taleb believe the same is true in many situations.

    I see this principle applies in office work. If you perfect the process, even when the resulting process is correct, you make the office FRAGILE. Any small perturbation breaks it. Without the perfected process, you run a slightly lower efficiency, but you do not have the problem of complete failure as resulting from a small perturbation. Thus, there is evidence that an "ideal" system is not perfected, and still involves a certain amount of chaos.

    Obviously, more study is needed on this. I will talk on this topic of "Antifragile Office Systems" at the BPM-Next conference in March:


  • I don't think the problem is that businesses are apt to spend $100k to get another $10k worth of performance out of their process. Let's assume they know better.

    Rather, there is a related issue, in that organizations want to perfect their processes before automating them. "Why automate a broken process?", you hear them say. But the truth is that a process that has been implemented with a BPMS is easier to measure, easier to evaluate, and easier to improve than one that has not.

    So, while it may not be worthwhile to "perfect" a process, it often makes sense to improve one. You may as well take advantage of the tools that help you do so.

  • There is no such thing as 'perfect, 'ideal' or even 'optimized' process.

    In my recent blog posts I write about 'Naive Intervention' and perfecting processes is exactly that! it has a theorectical gain that in practice is unachievable and actually worsens the way a business works.

  • This question concerning the advisability of perfecting business processes is an interesting rhetorical exercise. And as is often the case with good rhetoric, good answers have been forthcoming.

    Especially we learn that the application of the Pareto principle (i.e. the 80/20 rule) to business process automation is a very good sense. The best comment is from Scott M who makes the interesting argument that perfection (or improvement) is much easier after automation. Keith's comment about the brittleness of perfection is also noteworthy.

    Consider for a moment however the idea that "perfection" is a shibboleth, or a "straw man", used to justify inaction. It's a common rhetorical strategy to deride any kind of revolutionary improvement as "idealistic" or that "perfection is academic". And there's a ton of literature and experience, from the 80's obsession with "excellence" to the triumph of Apple, suggesting that a satisfaction with less than perfection is too often an excuse for acceptance of the mediocre.

    In today's world of feverish competition, satisfaction with the status quo is not a winning strategy. And especially given that processes are about the "work-of-business", processes must be subject to unending scrutiny. The recipes provided in the answers to the original question here are the right recipes, for sure. But the application of the 80/20 rule should never be an excuse for complacency.

    Thinking about complacency reminds me of the adage about "paving the cowpath". One paves the cowpath because that's the way it's always been done. Imagining a perfectly straight road, in the palce of a winding cowpath, might be unrealistic, but successful business is very much about imagining and building towards a better world. An ideal of perfection can be a motivating goal even if day-to-day we muddle through.

  • John's comment above cracks this one open beautifully.
    I think the way to square this circle is to think about how "perfect" can mean different things, depending on your goals.
    One organisation might seek to optimise a process in terms of efficiency; but another could equally think about optimising that process in terms of effectiveness, no? And we all know that efficiency and effectiveness aren't the same thing. The same goes for agility.
    We can and should seek to optimise processes continually - but that work might look very different, depending on what we're aiming for.
    There's more nuance here, because a rigorous analysis is likely to discover that some processes in an organisation need to be optimised for efficiency, but others need to be optimised for agility. The boundaries between these "optimisation domains" may well shift over time depending on things like market conditions, M&A activities, etc...
    Great discussion.

  • Keith: "What an interesting discussion! I am glad to see so many comments supporting the idea that knowledge workers actually perform best when they have the flexibility to change the way they accomplish something."

    Actually, I didn't see comments supporting that idea... the comments were pointing out that perfection is a moving target, but no one said that individual knowledge workers were going to get there just because they have flexibility. Unless I missed something that got deleted later...

    Simple example from one of the first projects I ever did. We implemented a small process for returns. Well, turns out that at the volumes our customer deals with, even a small percentage of returns is a Large Number. So, we noticed from this that there was enough value to pursue improving the process for handling distressed shipments (bad addresses, receiver not home or not at office when delivery arrives, etc.). Having done that as well, and then made improvements to both (that weren't obvious til we implemented v1 and v2..), we then could see that these two processes were part of a larger story that both could and should be managed and monitored.

    So a six figure project was embarked on that yielded 7 figure returns per quarter. This wasn't because individual people in the process exercised adaptability (though they certainly did, to rescue individual cases), it was because at an aggregate level there were really interesting ways to give those people better tools, or to bring cases to their attention in a more timely fashion when they were more likely to be able to make a difference.

    The point is, as we embarked on the journey, we learned more about the business and the process, and new opportunities for value were opened to our eyes that initially we just couldn't see through the fog of ignorance. And we adapted and changed the processes accordingly.

  • Interesting discussion, there's no such thing as "perfect" process, because process is means to end, not the end, and the characteristics of good process could be: agile, flexible, resilient, automated, elastic, etc.

    But processes can continue to be improved, even certain process users or owners think process perfect, from enterprise architecture perspective, or from governance viewpoint, process need be seen as piece of big picture.

  • How could a business perfect something that does not exist???

    The only thing that exists is the product (or intermediate thereof) going through a series of work items. You can improve the quality of those and it usually has nothing to do with the process but with the PEOPLE, TOOLS or MATERIALS. Perfect those before you think about illusionary processes.

    In a service business the product is the customers perceived value of what your business does. How do you want to describe that in a process flow? Thinking about real world things rather than abstract processes will improve a business a lot more, faster and cheaper.

  • I would not use the word perfect. Processes should be relative to the operational expectations. When they fail or fall short…time to improve.

    Segue, have to go old school with Gary’s definition of a process…do not define a word with the word. In reality there is no perfect process. To tag a thing perfect leaves no room for agility and improvement.

    BPI is a phased effort. Many times the 20% processes are unknown; created as ADHAQ of the 80%. It would be unhealthy and risky for any organization to improve 80% and leave 20% as “economically unwise to pursue” and visa versa, keep in mind e2e processes.

    To answer the question. Businesses should strive to keep their processes in line with the organizational objectives.

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