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In 1630, Jean Baptista van Helmont took an earthen pot and in it placed 200 pounds of earth, and in it planted a shoot of willow weighing five pounds. He watered the willow for the next five years, and then removed the tree. The tree weighed in at approximately 169 pounds. The soil weighed in at the same 200 pounds, less about 2 ounces.

Where did the 169 pounds of willow tree come from? Clue: van Helmont's conclusion that it had arisen from water alone is wrong. Give up? The correct answer is that it came out of thin air-believe it or not.

Oregon State University forest and soils expert Phillip Sollins explains, "Most of a tree's weight comes not from the water but from the carbon of carbon dioxide, right out of thin air." It is the invisible "P" of photosynthesis that pulls carbon out of the air and packs it into a solid substance, cellulose. So when you see a tree, you can think of it as one part water and three parts air, with a sprinkling of soil nutrients.

Fast forward to today's business world. Plant a bunch of people (employees, stockholders, management) in a business with, let's say, $100 million in fixed assets, pay their salaries for the next five years, and then weigh their profits. Assuming a healthy company, where did all those profits come from? Again, the answer is that it came out of thin air. It is the invisible "P" of process that pulls the day-to-day activities of the business out of the air and packs them into a solid substance, profits. So when you see a mighty company that others envy, you can think of it as one part strategy and three parts business process.

In the work of Joseph Juran, Edwards Demming and other pioneers in the quality movement that transformed Japan into an industrial might, their stock in trade was the invisible "P" in achieving quality in making things. To them, that invisible element, process, could be codified, measured and improved, creating quality out of thin air-no new factories or expensive equipment needed. To them, whatever the product may be, the process is the product. Their intangible notions are repeatable, and today we have globalized blue-collar work with quality-certified manufacturing scattered around the world, from Brasilia to Shanghai.

But the story of the invisible "P" is just beginning to unfold as we are now witnessing one of the greatest shifts in the history of business and commerce, the globalization of white-collar work and information workers. That invisible element, process, is being codified, measured and improved, creating new profits out of thin air. That last phone call you made to a customer service representative to straighten out your book order from Amazon.com or that call a GE Aerospace engineer made to get the superseded part number on a jet engine gizmo could have, as well as not, been handled in Bangalore by a customer representative speaking in a Midwest voice easily mistaken for Johnny Carson. In either case, the customer representative is able to meet the unique demands of the customer by triggering new, existing or tweaked business processes, right there in real-time, no IT support needed. These processes may involve diverse participants and activities: an order submitted to a warehouse in Kentucky, a credit check with a London bank, or a call tag request for a UPS pickup in St. Louis. Further, all these coordinated activities are needed to handle exceptions to a larger business process that is awaiting the completion of one or more of the activities. The streamlining, personalizing and optimizing of the myriad business processes of a company can indeed go directly to the bottom line, and a new breed of software has emerged to make that possible on an unprecedented scale.


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