Business process mapping Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2007

As companies grow, they eventually start to struggle against their own operational models. Most companies are built around a functional organizational approach, with several key individuals who know what they want the business to be. This is a good model at first, but eventually it runs up against two barriers.

“One barrier is that all the knowledge is carried in the heads of that select group of individuals, rarely down on paper, and, therefore, difficult to leverage,” says Bill Russell, executive vice president of Allegient. “Second, functions tend to get siloed over time as they grow, creating pain in the interactions between functions.”

Smart Business spoke with Russell about the importance of process mapping.

If the business is functioning well, should it still map its processes?

The challenge is how to build on that success. Business is typically functionally based, like sales and marketing or operations. But, business processes tend to be cross-function focused. Whether you have a functional or business unit orientation, you still need to understand and map your business processes. It protects against ‘key man syndrome,’ where you stand to lose your undocumented intellectual property. If the company is not doing well, it’s likely it is facing several constraints. A common constraint is that the company’s operations are often represented solely in people and can’t be leveraged. A key way to leverage that knowledge is to better understand your business processes. Then the company can scale mapped documentation by applying technology.

What companies should consider mapping?

Mapping is truly emerging as a focus for every company to document their business processes and leverage them for growth, improved performance and lower costs. It should become a core competency for all mid-size companies and smaller companies that want to grow. If they wish to accelerate their growth, they’ve got to embrace a business process strategy, and mapping is a vehicle to that.

What are the benefits of process mapping?

Establishing a baseline for how the business processes work tells a company how the business actually runs. This baseline provides a platform for improvement and automation. You tend to make much better choices and be more prepared for new software and technology if you truly understand your business processes. Finally, this analysis becomes a great platform for training and growing new resources and new employees.

What process improvements can be found?

The most common is business worker ad hoc behavior or highly inefficient handoffs. Knowledge workers who go off and do their own thing — manual steps, meetings and unstructured technology use like e-mail, attachments, etc. — typically represent inefficient processes. Other examples are bad handoffs. Most business processes suggest the flow of work between different subject matter experts (SMEs), and those handoffs may be very sloppy and nonstandard.

Can software assist in mapping projects?

Absolutely. The simplest program may be a desktop package from Microsoft called Visio.

It is representative of a class of software called business process modelers. These packages use standard flow-charting procedures to graphically display how a business process is operating. The emerging standard that’s being driven into the industry is called Business Process Modeling Notation (BPMN). Another class of software actually uses the BPMN models, converts them into a business process executable language standard (BPEL), and then can even build software code from them.

Should outside resources be utilized?

Nobody knows how a company is operating better than the people inside it. SMEs have to be involved to identify and help articulate what these business processes are. Unfortunately, SMEs are often too busy running the business. Outside experts can come in to help SMEs translate the intellectual property into a standard format. When you get any group of SMEs together, they will disagree as to how that business process truly operates. Getting to a consensus takes facilitation. Outside experts scale your SMEs and provide neutrality to get at the true way a business process is operating.

How do you start a mapping initiative?

Companies should take their functional organizational chart and try to map against that. Across the top row, they should list all functions like sales, manufacturing, operations, delivery, fulfillment and the rest. Vertically, in column, they should identify the processes that represent the major ways the company operates. Normally, there are five to 10 major business processes that encompass how a company operates. If the company wants to go a step further, it might then grid its technology systems against these functions and process axes, looking for gaps, opportunities for improvements and additional technology needs. Consider external experts to speed up the effort.

BILL RUSSELL is executive vice president of Allegient. Reach him at (317) 564-5701 or brussell@allegient.com.