BPM Without Senior Executive Involvement Will Fail

Ann All

Last month I wrote a post in which I wondered whether CIOs were well-positioned to lead process-improvement efforts, followed shortly thereafter by a post in which I concluded that who leads such efforts isn't as important as close cooperation between business units and IT, given the skill sets both should lend to process initiatives.


Yet that kind of cooperation likely can't occur until an organization makes a top-level commitment to process improvement and backs it up with appropriate action.


Writing on Harvard Business Review, consultant and researcher Brad Power makes the case that many companies suffer from what he calls Process Attention Deficit Disorder. All three of the primary symptoms of PADD are attributable to a lack of high-level commitment to process improvement. They are:

  • Lack of incentives for process improvement. Folks are rewarded for launching new products or expanding new markets, not for improving processes. Never mind that improving processes can make it easier to do these things. Companies make no effort to measure process performance or otherwise connect the dots. Writes Power: "Most measures are tactical or transactional. They do not capture the full needs of the customer or the relative health of a process. Resources are managed by functions, or markets, or products -- not by processes."
  • Lack of behaviors supporting process improvement. In a variation on the first symptom, senior managers don't address process improvement in their communications with staff. Nor do they recognize process improvement in performance reviews, teach about it or nurture projects or individuals involved in it.
  • Lack of organization devoted to process improvement. I wrote about an AIIM survey from 2008 that found 57 percent of companies did not not designate a specific group as responsible for business process-management initiatives. Instead, the responsibility is typically shared among IT, finance and operations, among other areas. I realize the survey is 2 years old, but I suspect those numbers haven't changed much. Writes Power: "Without an organization, there is no power, no focal point for attention."


Getting senior executives on board with BPM may be tough for many reasons, several of which are discussed in comments following Power's post. Power himself faults "a magnified culture of personality" in which leaders "see themselves as personifying the organization, rather than serving as stewards." This translates into a shortsighted view that doesn't acknowledge the importance of process. Says Power:

... They often don't see the value of investing in strengthening core capabilities, institutionalizing process competence, or building innovative cultures. Their egos get in the way of them seeing this. They focus on themselves and their strategy, not their company's operational capabilities. By thinking only of their results now, they pay less attention to their firm's outcomes later.

Some of the more interesting thoughts from readers:

  • Pete Healy makes the observation that some senior managers may not want to get involved in process improvement lest they be accused of micro-management.
  • James Mihaychuk opines that process improvement and other aspects of day-to-day management are no longer as valued as the ability to strike partnerships or make deals.
  • Andy_mcf says process work can be "dull and difficult." Not only that, but executives are quick to buy into the idea that certain products, tools or services will solve all their problems which, if true, would minimize the need for process improvement.
  • Gladstonematt says for some folks, process is "synonymous with 'too much process' and opposed to 'entrepreneurialism' or 'getting things done.' " Back in March, I wrote about the (unfounded) concerns that too much process can stifle innovation.
  • Jinachandran thinks some executives may be disillusioned, if they've participated in prior process initiatives that didn't yield desired results. Also, he points out, process initiatives rarely yield the kinds of quick wins that most executives like.


Despite these challenges, Power says involving senior executives is essential to the success of process-improvement efforts. He writes:


... Only when process improvement is on the top management agenda can a company make the often large investments in process redesign, information technology, training and education that are required. Senior executive knowledge of his or her company's strategy is a key driver of the way that work should be designed or redesigned. Only senior management can resolve turf issues between departments and functions - issues which can torpedo cross-functional process improvement. Redesigning work from a customer's point-of-view and the ongoing pursuit of operational excellence implies changes not only in IT and processes, but also in organization, attitudes, and behaviors. The biggest execution challenge is shifting the mindsets of people within the organization. Therefore, any major process improvement program must have the active engagement of the top team.


So how to get senior executives interested in process? A reader named Steve Raack suggests that aligning costs to processes is a good way to get their attention. Establish a baseline, showing much it costs to launch a new product for instance, then show how process improvements can cut the cost.

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