The Next Frontier of Operational Efficiency

May 14, 2009
Unstructured, ad-hoc, human-centric processes far outnumber the traditional structured processes in most businesses and for the most part, are invisible, unmanaged and under-the-radar.

In today's economy, lean processes and operational efficiency are top of mind for all manufacturing organizations whether it is a manufacturing process, business process or any type of structured process. The problem is that structured processes are only a small portion of the actual processes that make the business run. Unstructured, ad-hoc, human-centric processes far outnumber the traditional structured processes in most businesses, providing a need for solutions that manage these processes within organizations for safety and audits and to comply with governmental regulations. These unstructured processes hide under many names (e.g. office work, knowledge work, staff work), and for the most part, are invisible, unmanaged and under-the-radar.

So what defines an unstructured human process? It is not just any back and forth meeting, email, document or spreadsheet exchange between two colleagues, but rather, recurring work that but is not always documented -- hence a need for a standard framework for the work that needs to get done. The main difference between a structured process and a human process is that a human process can change every time it is executed based on the environment, the needs of the business and the involved parties decisions and expertise.

No matter how lean traditional structured processes are, if companies are not examining unstructured human processes as closely as your structured processes, they cannot be truly efficient. For example, one Microsoft survey looked at B2B Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) purchase order transactions at a small business and found that though there was one standard process, there were 65 different variations depending on the nature of the order. These exceptions are handled outside the standard process, usually via email, which make them difficult to manage, monitor and track, and any organizational learning that could have taken place from a better understanding of how exceptions are handled, is lost.

Human processes are found everywhere in the manufacturing industry. For example, safety audits and investigations are typically handled through a combination of human expertise, meetings, spreadsheet checklists and email. This makes end-to-end tracking of the process, a nightmare, effectively killing any hope of systematically deriving lessons learned.

Manufacturers need a way to comply with Health, Safety and Environmental regulations (HSE). During incident tracking there is normally a central system for filling out the documentation relating to the incident, but there is no way to track and manage the actions taking and lessons learned. The incidents cause a flurry of emails between the different organizations that need to tend to the incident (safety, line organization, management) and there is no documentation of the actions taken to fix the issues.

So what can be done? It is impossible to model and rigorously define every single ad-hoc unstructured process, or to think through every conceivable action ahead of time. Rather, the goal should be to allow processes to continue as usual, providing just enough structure to monitor and manage them, but making sure not to overdo it and strangle them. By managing human processes this way you can achieve visibility where none existed before and discover the invisible processes that make the business run.

These requirements are the basis of the emerging technology of Human Process Management (HPM). HPM systems focus on the tracking, monitoring and management of unstructured, extremely dynamic human-to-human interactions in their natural environment. They also provide an organizational memory and system-of-record for the unstructured, ad-hoc, human processes that make the business run.

Manufacturers can use these systems within several different examples:

  1. While doing warehouse audits, various types of findings are generated -- items missing or misplaced and procedures are not being followed. These audits were previously followed up by emails used to track progress on solving the issues raised in the audit. This of course caused a flurry of emails and manual follow-up, with no centralized documentation of the corrective actions being taken. An HPM system instantly knows the status of all of the actions taken as a result of the audits and can generate management reports of the standing of ongoing audits.
  2. When a possible fraud issue is discovered it is sent to a special investigation team. They start sending emails and collecting information from many different parties, possibly including experts outside the organization. Previously, companies used email and documents as the mechanism for managing these cases. Even though they had a central store for all the documents involved, they had no way to track and manage all of the email correspondence that took place as a result of each fraud escalation instance and lost the organizational learning that was possible from the handling of these events. By using HPM systems, companies can now have a complete record of how the fraud event was handled to completion, which could be later analyzed to discern trends and best practices.
  3. Quality issues that pop up are usually handled outside the standard ERP systems, since they involve many people that do not use the ERP system and in many cases tend to be ad-hoc problem solving exercises, rather than rigorous pre-defined processes. Even though many ERP systems have implemented rudimentary quality control capabilities, most quality issues usually end up being handled via email and documents, with the last chain in the process updating the ERP system. However, the process of solving the issue is lost to the organization, and with it any possibility of organizational learning. By using HPM systems, the organization has a complete record of how each quality issue was handled, and assurance that the issue was followed up to completion. Also, management has complete visibility of quality issues and how they are handled.

Jacob Ukelson is CTO of ActionBase that provides Human Process Management Solutions that enables businesses to manage their business critical processes.

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