Lesson 8: Let’s Be Clear

Lets be Clear

Business Process Management

It sounds thrilling doesn’t it?  Business Process Management, or to give it the even sexier acronym, BPM.  How could you not want some of that?  I can feel the humour and good will evaporating as I write about it.

The problem with BPM is that for most people it falls into the category of Dull and Unimportant.  This is not a good place to be.  My challenge is to move it in your mind to Interesting and Important, something you will want to worry about.

It is a tough challenge, do you think I will achieve it?

Only brush the teeth you want to keep

This is a phrase my dentist used to use.  His point being you don’t have to brush your teeth, but it is important that you do.  The same is true of BPM.

Business Process Management is about one thing, making things clear.  Making it clear to people how things should and do work.  It isn’t sexy, it is just about getting your act together, and you get your act together by being clear about the answers to 6 simple questions:

  • What does your customer want?
  • How do you deliver that?
  • Who does what?
  • How do you know it is happening?
  • What could go wrong?
  • What stops it going wrong?

It is important that you can answer these questions.  If you can’t, then you won’t convince me (or anybody else) that you have got your act together.  You won’t convince me that it will work.

Have I covered the first hurdle?  Have I moved you from unimportant to important?  I hope so.

1.  What Does Your Customer Want?

This is the “Sherlock Question” as in “No shit Sherlock”.  It sounds straightforward, until you dig into it a little.

Who is your customer?

Is it the actual customer?  Is it the next person down the line, the internal customer?  Is it the business shareholders?  Is it the business employees?  Is it the regulator?  How on earth can you keep all those people happy?  The answer is easy…  Always worry about the paying customer, the one who hands over the money.   That is the one we really need to keep sweet.  If you do that the others should fall in line.

What do they want?

This is simple:

  • Ask them.  When was the last time you actually sat down and asked some customers?
  • Listen to them.  The easiest way is to leaf through your complaints.  That is a fairly “straight forward and to the point” feedback mechanism.  What do your complaints say?  Do they have a pattern?  What is the biggest source of dissatisfaction?  Do you know?  I don’t mean “think you know”, have you got the facts at your finger tips?
  • Write it down, create a specification.  This is your promise to your customers.  Is it written in a way that the customer would agree with?  A service level agreement or SLA is not the same thing.  Just because you can answer 90% of letters within 5 working days doesn’t mean your customer cares.

The aim is to ask the probing questions, move away from generalities to specifics.  Be really clear what it is your customer wants.

2. How Do You Deliver That?

My daughters love to play games.  It is a bit wearing, truth be told.  One of my staples is Chinese whispers.  It will keep them and their friends happy for a good 20 minutes.  It is a good children’s game.  The thing that amazes me though is that as adults we love to play it too.  It is called “on the job training” or a “handover”.  How it works is that you are given something complicated to do.  You are then passed over to Frank who has done it for a while and he will explain.  Frank learnt how from Jane and Jane was taught by Tom.

If you want to cheat at the game, there are four quite simple ways to do it.

  • Write it down — in management speak these are “work instructions”.  Specific, clear, relevant instructions that tell people how to do the job.
  • Draw a picture, a picture tells a thousand words.  AKA process maps.  Don’t get hung up about process mapping standards.  It is more important is that you have some nice clear (that word again) diagrams that show people what to do.  If you ever visit Dominos Pizza, look at the pictures they have to show people where to put the salami on the pizza.  Process Maps.
  • Train people — how is that for a radical thought.
  • Practice, repeat when the heat isn’t on.

Tell me, I’ll forget, Show me, I’ll remember, Involve me, I’ll understand ~ Chinese Proverb

3. Who Is Accountable?

This is a little story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.

Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.

Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job.

Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realised that Everybody wouldn’t do it.

It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done. ~ Anon

Sorry, that was a bit cute, but is everyone clear who does what?

  • Who sends the paperwork?
  • Who do the requirements get passed to?
  • Who signs off the training material?
  • Who authorises the payment?

Are you really clear?  Do your staff members know?  It might be obvious to you but that doesn’t mean it is obvious to them — unless you have telepathy as one of your key recruitment criteria.  If roles and responsibilities aren’t clear (and it is causing you a problem) write them down.  Who is accountable, who is responsible, who needs to be consulted, who needs to be informed?  As a general rule use roles and not names, then it won’t be as necessary to keep updating things as people move on.

4. How Do You Know It Is Happening?

The answer is simple, measure it.  But measurement is not easy.  There are some simple guidelines to follow:

Only measure the critical few things.  It is easy to fall into the trap of measuring everything that moves, just in case, but it doesn’t help if you have 1001 measures of customer satisfaction.  You can’t see the wood for the trees.  The critical measures will drop out of the questions you asked your customer about what they wanted.

Have balanced measures.  There is a lot of talk about “balanced scorecards” but what does that actually mean?  I used to work for a credit card company.  One of the key measures is how much money did they lend.  Lending money is good if you are a bank, it is how you make money.  The problem is that lending money by itself is easy; the tricky bit is getting it back.  Focusing on one part of your business at the expense of the other can be disastrous.

It is worth remembering that what gets measured drives behaviour.

Tell me how you measure me, and I will tell you how I will behave ~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt

As part of its efforts to cut overfishing in the north sea the government measured (and cut) the number of licenses that it handed out to trawler owners.

  • Less licenses, less trawlers, less fishing, went the logic.
  • Less licenses, less (but bigger more efficient) trawlers, more fishing, went the reality

So measure a few balanced outcomes and check your customers are getting what they expect.

5.  What Could Go Wrong?

Risk assessment is a funny thing.  Some people love it, they love to feel that they have thought through all the angles.  They love to feel in control.  Other people curl up and lose the will to live.  I fall squarely into the curled up camp.  However, it is a simple, painless thing to do and the rewards outweigh the cost.

Take the process of making a cup of tea.  What could possibly go wrong?  I have pulled together a quick risk assessment below.  For each step I have identified what could go wrong and I have rated the likelihood of it happening and the impact.  Then for each risk (eventuality) I have given it a score by multiplying the probability by the impact.Risk Analysis

The biggest risk is that I spill boiling water on myself.  That is interesting observation, but more important still is what I do with it.  I am in my forties.  I am big enough to live with the risk.  I accept it.  My father is 83 and unsure of himself.  My eldest daughter is 8 and flighty.  Is it appropriate to accept the risk for them?  Should they be pouring boiling water?  Decide whether you are prepared to live with a risk.

  • If you are be explicit about it.
  • If you aren’t, work out how you are going to reduce it.

Either approach is acceptable; however, not understanding the risks, is not.

An adventure is just poor planning ~ Roald Amundsen

6.  What Stops It Going Wrong?

If you have decided that you aren’t prepared to live with a risk then do something about it.  Add a control to stop the bad thing from happening.

The best controls are those that you don’t think about.  Making a cup of tea 100 years ago was far more hazardous than it is now.  Process controls have been put in place that make it far safer, and you don’t even notice.

  • 100 years ago the milk could have gone off, today nearly all milk is pasteurised
  • 100 years ago you could have added too much or too little tea, today we use tea bags
  • 100 years ago electricity could have burnt down your house, today we have insulated wires.

We also have fridges, sugar lumps, clean running water, kettles that switch themselves off and three pin plugs that only fit in the socket one way.  All of these are process controls, they prevent bad things from happening and we don’t even think about them.


Take one of your processes and critically look at it.  Systematically work through the 6 questions and ask yourself how good you are.  The templates you choose to use are dependent on the service you offer and your organisation, but here are some examples and links you can use as a starting point:

1.  Service Specifications:
2.  Consistent Delivery:
3.  Accountability:
4.  Measurement:
5.  Risk Analysis:
6.  Controls:

This is a lot of homework.  It begs the question why would you bother?  As a starting point try working out the cost of poor quality.  Maybe the pound notes will make grab your attention.

How did I do?  Interesting and Important?

In next weeks lesson we will discuss Employee Engagement

Thank you for reading


Post Script

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