Sustainable BPM: Strategies for creating continuous process improvement

Editor’s Note: In this Q & A, ebizQ’s Peter Schooff speaks with Clay Richardson, a senior analyst at Forrester Research. They discuss how to approach thinking about continuous process improvement--and how to overcome three of common hurdles to keeping such efforts on track. This Q & A, excerpted from a longer podcast, has been edited for clarity, length and editorial style.

ebizQ: First of all, what are the benefits of continuous process improvement in an organization?

We [at Forrester] just finished a look at the BPM suite space, and part of that is actually looking at what customers are trying to accomplish with BPM. When we do these reports, we're really trying to look at what are the big trends, what are the big challenges and how does the technology and methods begin to help with that.

When we finished this research, we were able to validate a new set of benefits evolving for business process improvement and continuous process improvement. Where BPM traditionally has been, and where process improvement has traditionally been, is focused on productivity, efficiency, employee collaboration and visibility into key processes. It’s that kind of that back-office business case that has traditionally driven BPM.

A lot of what we saw through this recent research is that BPM is shifting more and more to also support the front office. So when we talk about benefits around BPM now, we also focus on how you improve the process experience to deliver a better customer experience. We're seeing more and more companies use continuous improvement to drive better customer engagement and connectivity with channels [such as] mobile and social—and also to be able to drive growth in the business.

So instead of just focusing on the back office and efficiency, we're also beginning to see these benefits around front office engagement for BPM, which is very different. You have these two sets of categories for benefits, with some new ones coming out and having high impact in the organization.

ebizQ: I know you have a lot of real-world experience with these implementations. So in your experience, how typical is it for a continuous process improvement initiative to stall out?

The term “stall” can mean different things to different people, so it’s pretty subjective. But based on customer conversations and what I see as I go around the market,the vast majority hit a wall at some time. If I had to give a number, it’s somewhere in the range of 60%.

The majority of them launch the initiative, go out and engage with the business, deliver low-hanging-fruit-type projects for the first year or year in a half—but then they hit this wall...Again, I don't have the hard data, but if I had to put numbers to it, I would say probably 30 or 40% of initiatives completely stall out, meaning that not only do they hit the brick wall, they end up either shrinking or going away in some way as a result of not being able to build a tighter business case. That's actually not a bad number, 30%. We do see where most, if they hit the brick wall, they’re able to overcome it or at least maintain the same level of a project or program that they had before.

ebizQ: What would you say, then, are the main hurdles for continuous process improvement? How can a company overcome them?

There are three key drivers that we see that are hurdles for business process improvement and continuous improvement.

The first revolves around the resources and skills: Are you able to build up skills and have skills internally that can deliver continuous improvement?

The second is around the political aspect. This is something we write about a good bit: How you navigate the political landmines that continuous improvement poses? Part of the challenge there is when you kick off the program or kick off a continuous improvement initiative, it may sit under one group—maybe either under IT or enterprise architecture—or somewhere under an executive, [such as] the CIO or CFO or COO.

A lot of teams don't account for how the initiative will evolve from a political standpoint once you get the results that you want or the results that you targeted initially. What might happen to the program? Might it shift from one reporting structure to another or might it shift from one group, functional group, to another? So that's really important. It's very subtle, but it's very critical in terms of the wall, if you will.

I have an example. A customer that I started working with a couple years ago kicked off their BPM initiative and were reporting into the audit group. But after the rest of the organization was able to see the results, they actually ended up shifting BPM to another team so that it reported into another C-level executive. They really didn't plan for that political transition. They did hit a wall for awhile and stalled for awhile just trying to regroup around “What is the strategy? What is the plan?” So you really want to take some time upfront to think about that.

The third biggest hurdle that teams hit is business engagement. That has always been a challenge in the continuous improvement world—really being able to maintain a high level of engagement and interest with the business to be able to drive projects and deliver continuous projects on a regular basis. A lot of times, after the first few projects, the business kind of gets an idea of what this is about, what it really means. But they really don't necessarily feel they own it. So it's hard to build that business case for how you take it to the next level. How do you get more funding to take it to more business stakeholders?

Some would say executive sponsorship is another piece.That’s really a standard thing that we see across any kind of type of project, not just BPM, where you need to have executive sponsorship. The three that I named really are specific challenges we see for creating sustainable BPM practices.

ebizQ: What would you say is the proper role for BPM software in all this?

That's really a hot-button question. You'll see some people that are purists about BPM and technology and they say, “If you're doing process improvement, it doesn't require automation.” Then you see some on the other side that say, “The only way to do process improvement is with automation, with BPM technology.”

Really, where the technology fits is to accelerate improvement and to institutionalize improvement. That’s the real opportunity for the technology.

I remember reading this report that was put out maybe three or four years ago. It highlighted the fact that if team just do Lean Six Sigma projects, they're able to get good continuous improvement numbers and benefits. But over time, those benefits erode because they didn't necessarily put in a way to control and institutionalize the changes.

So really, the technology allows you to institutionalize and standardize whatever benefits and changes you put in, but it's also there to help accelerate the delivery of those changes.

When we look at where BPM is now and where it continues to go, it also focuses on the ability to change the processes much more quickly. So if you just focus on continuous improvement without the technology, it takes longer to implement and institutionalize the changes, but also takes longer to make changes that are needed by the organization. A little bit more forward-leaning is this whole notion of BPM supporting better engagement—customer engagement and employee engagement.

From a continuous improvement standpoint, when you look at things like dynamic case management, event-driven BPM, social BPM—all those factors can actually drive a different way of engaging with the process for customers and employees and partners.

So when you look at continuous improvement, it’s about balancing it out with the technology to drive acceleration, institutional knowledge better engagement, a higher level of engagement with stakeholders, whether that's customers, employees, or partners.

ebizQ: Is there is a key takeaway from all this? What would you say are the key steps for maintaining this acceleration of BPM and keeping it on track?

You have to think beyond the back office for creating sustainable BPM programs. The key there is focusing on customer experience, looking at how BPM can support better engagement with customers—and then, also as part of that, bringing in a business-architecture view. We didn't really talk about that in this session, but that's a big part of being able to have a broader perspective on continuous improvement and looking at where are the opportunities for making change in the organization and having a big impact.

So the key takeaway is shifting your thinking to the front office and building a business case that gets there over time, that gets to those benefits and the value of a better engagement over time.

About the Author

Peter Schooff is a former contributing editor for ebizQ, where he also managed the ebizQ Forum for several years. Previously, Peter managed the database operations for a major cigar company, served as writer/editor of an early Internet entertainment site and developed a computer accounting system for several retail stores. Peter can be reached at

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