In 1921, Frank B. Gilbreth and Lillian M. Gilbreth presented the seminal idea of business process modeling to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in a paper called “Process Charts: First Steps In Finding the One Best Way To Do Work.” According to the authors, the process chart allows us to better understand complex processes by presenting sub-processes and their interrelations in an orderly way:
"Every detail of a process is more or less affected by every other detail; therefore, the entire process must be presented in such form that it can be visualized all at once before any changes are made in any of its subdivisions. In any subdivision of the process under examination, any changes made without due consideration of all the decisions and all the motions that precede and follow that subdivision will often be found unsuited to the ultimate plan of operation."
As an abstraction of real processes, the process modeling applies “equally well to the routine of production, selling, accounting and finance.”
The technique has an almost universal scope in principle: just about any productive endeavor can be represented in terms of inputs, sequences, decision points, and outputs. And in our technologically accelerated, increasingly integrated workplaces, process modeling has emerged as a highly valuable tool for identifying performance improvements, achieving greater efficiency, and aligning business operations with high-level strategic goals. But even if every problem might be, in some sense, a nail, a hammer still might not be always the best tool.
If you are a small business looking for, in the Gilbreths’ words, “the one best way to do work,” it’s worthwhile to consider a few questions before plopping down your first diamond, circle, or arrow in Visio.
Do workers lack an awareness of the overall work process? As the Gilbreths note, the point of process modeling is establishing common understanding. The process model exists to present “existing and proposed processes in such simple form that such information can become available to and usable by the greatest possible number of people.” Generally speaking, therefore, the larger and more complex the process, and the greater the number of stakeholders within it, the greater the benefit of modeling.
But if you are a small team looking to achieve greater efficiency, the underlying problem might not be the lack of an overall understanding of your process in the first place. The smaller our team and the less distinct our workspaces and roles, the more likely we are to understand already the interdependencies of our work products. In this case, creating a process model might just create additional documentation that will require upkeep but do little to disseminate useful information among the team.
How variable is our work? Process analysis emerged in the discipline of engineering, as a tool applied to highly repeatable and quantifiable phenomena. If I’m manufacturing automobiles, I want to establish a process that will run the same way each time. As a final output, I want to obtain nearly identical copies of whatever model I’m producing. Accordingly, I want the same steps applied in the same way to every chassis rolling down the line.
In Upton Sinclair’s The Flivver King, Abner Shutt works in Henry Ford’s Detroit plant screwing spindle-nuts onto the wheels of new automobiles. At one point, he approaches Mr. Ford with an idea for eliminating “a lot of waste.” The spindle-nuts come in two varieties, left or right, threaded either clockwise or counter-clockwise.
Abner realizes that the job would be made more efficient if the spindle-nuts arrived pre-sorted and separate teams installed the spindle-nuts to the right or left wheels of the vehicle. His idea allows a less skilled sorter to separate the spindle-nuts, while each spindle-nut screwer can more efficiently focus on installing a single type of spindle-nut. By analyzing his work activities into separate, interdependent components, Abner has realized a way to make the assembly line more efficient.
But now consider a different sort of work. Suppose you are a small team responsible for writing proposals or grants. Your team needs to understand solicitation requirements and develop accurate, complete, and compelling responses that represent your client as the best value contractor available. This sort of job is very different than assembling an automobile in many obvious ways, including the far greater degree of variability. There may be “one best way” to assemble a particular model of automobile, but the one best way to write the response for a particular client to a particular solicitation is little more than a hypothetical notion.
While we can define a general composition process that might incorporate, for example, steps for research, outlining, writing, and revision, each proposal will entail a high amount of variability. How much time do we need to spend on background research for this or that solicitation, or on recruiting qualified candidates? How many iterations of a revision process are necessary to complete our understanding and approach to the statement of work? What past work experiences best represent our relevant capabilities? What language most forcefully conveys our ability to adapt to changing work requirements?
These are all questions with highly variable answers. In this context, the abstraction of a repeatable sequence with distinct steps and defined, linear flows will be both less accurate and less valuable.
What is the scale of our work? In the Flivver King, Abner Shutt’s innovation might save only a few seconds in the manufacture of a single automobile. But multiplied across tens of thousands of automobiles over the course of a year, it has a great deal of value for Mr. Ford (less so for Abner, as streamlining the assembly line eventually eliminates his job!).
When applied to relatively invariant, quantifiable, repeatable processes, process modeling can identify improvements that are valuable on the large scale, but that appear insignificant (or may not even be apparent at all) at the individual task level. However, if you are a small team working on a few, highly variable projects, a process analysis is less likely to afford significant gains in efficiency.
From the assembly line to the development of modern Business Process Model and Notation, the formal definition and analysis of business processes has yielded tangible results. And, in principle, this technique can apply to almost any work imaginable. It does not, however, always apply with equal accuracy or value. Are you a small team with a high degree of collaboration, interaction, and mutual understanding of one another’s work? Does your overall work process repeat relatively infrequently (say on the order of dozens of time per year, as opposed to thousands)? Are you engaged in highly variable work, where each work product is unique? Is it difficult to quantify precisely the amount of time needed to complete any step in the process because of a high degree of variation in process inputs and project conditions?
If the answer to these questions is yes, you may want to shut down Visio and look elsewhere for a solution to your problems. An old-fashioned open discussion among your team members might better reveal pain points and paths to improvement – without any added process or technology.
Editor's Note: This blog post is based on a paper published in the names of Frank B. Gilbreth and L.M. Gilbreth. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth were a husband-and-wife team, famously later portrayed by Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy; one wonders if the work was published with the intention of obfuscating Lillian Gilbreth's gender. She went on to have a truly groundbreaking career after Frank's early death in 1924, while also raising the couple's 11 surviving children.
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