Beware of Business Process Management

Be Careful about Adopting Internally-Driven Business Processes; Instead, Design a Customer-Adaptive Enterprise Using a Services-Oriented Approach

May 8, 2003

Business processes are internally-focused, difficult to design, hard to adapt, and have very short shelf-lives. Instead of wasting time designing business processes, we recommend that you identify the services required to support key Customer Scenarios® and let these services improvise to form new patterns in response to customers’ changing contexts. Notice the re-occurring patterns these services-interactions take. Optimize those. Services should be owned by business executives who should be responsible for the policies governing the services which fall under their purview.


What’s wrong with business processes? They represent your company’s processes; not your customers’ processes. This makes them hard to adapt to customers’ ever-changing needs.

We recommend that you take a fresh approach to business processes. Don’t try to design them. Don’t try to manage them.

Instead, capture customers’ preferred ways of doing things (in Customer Scenarios®) and uncover the sets of services that are needed to support those scenarios. Notice that these scenarios, and the services that support them, naturally fall into patterns.

Instead of choreographing business processes; capture the service-to-service improvisations that emerge in response to customers’ unanticipated requests or changes in circumstances. Then, you can choreograph the most pleasing and most efficient patterns of service interactions and optimize those to run quickly and smoothly. In this way, you can gain efficiencies, yet still foster improvisation.

A truly customer-adaptive organization can handle compliance issues by placing business rules and constraints external to the other services. Business rules may govern the sequence of services as well as determine which services are appropriate in each context.


In the last few months, we’ve been noticing a resurgence of activity around business processes. As one of our clients exclaimed the other day, “It’s reengineering, all over again!” This resurgence is spurred by companies’ needs to streamline operations across divisions, geographies, and customer-impacting channels. The re-awakening of interest in business process design and management should be a good thing. It gives us an opportunity to redesign our organizations once again--this time taking into account the impact of the Internet and the primacy of customers.

However, this new flurry of business process activity has us worried. We don’t believe it’s possible to redesign your business processes to be customer-centric. We don’t believe that it’s possible to design your business processes to be adaptive. We don’t believe it’s possible to design your business processes to be able to sense and respond to customers’ constantly changing needs and contexts. In fact, we’re not sure that it’s possible or desirable to design your business processes at all!

We believe that business processes emerge as patterns of consistent and predictable behavior in response to the context of the business and its customers. You can document existing business processes, and you can continuously improve the processes that emerge in response to situations. But, if you attempt to design business processes a priori, you’re going to design in a set of assumptions and requirements that may not be adaptable enough to handle the changes in customers’ circumstances from scenario to scenario, or even through the course of a single scenario.

They’re Inward-Focused

The crux of the problem is that all business processes are just that. They’re the processes you use to run your business. They’re not your customers’ processes. No matter how well or flexibly you design your internal processes, you’re designing your internal processes. Some of your internal processes may be fine, or close to fine, in terms of their impact on customers. Some of them may need major re-work in order to be made more customer-adaptive.

Not too long ago, one of Mike Hammer’s major clients showed up on our doorstep. “We’re redesigning all of our core business processes,” he said. “I’m in charge of the customer management process. The approach we’re taking for business process design works fine for the other processes; it doesn’t look to me as if it’s going to work well for our customers.” “You’re right,” we explained. “There is no such thing as a customer management process. Customers are unmanageable!” Customers have their own agendas. They’re not the same as yours. You need to capture the customers’ agendas--their preferred business processes, first. Then redesign and/or critique and vet your new business processes to verify that they’re supporting all of your customers’ most critical scenarios.”

Now, that company is using our Customer Scenario® mapping technique to capture its customers’ key scenarios. The business process owners for the other core processes participate in these sessions in order to learn first-hand what patterns of customer behavior they should expect and support. All of these process owners now realize that it’s very difficult to correctly anticipate and to design for all the improvisations that customers are likely to want. Yet this approach--starting from key customer scenarios and then designing flexible business processes to support them--is a good way to turn inward-facing business processes into customer-facing business processes.

So, having just said that we don’t believe it’s possible to design customer-centric business processes, we’ve just described one way to go about doing it. You start by capturing your customers’ desired (not today’s state!) processes--we call these Customer Scenarios®. Then, and only then, can you discover which of your business processes impact these scenarios and modify the processes, as needed, to accommodate the variability in your customers’ most likely scenarios. But you’ll still have a few big problems on your hands in trying to adapt your critical business processes to customers’ ever-changing needs.

It’s Difficult to Design Them to Be Adaptive

Here’s the next problem. Redesigning a business process to be more adaptive often requires ...

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