Lessons from the Business Process Improvement Graveyard

As a management consultant, there are times when you should go with your instinct, and walk away from consulting engagements that cannot work the way you expected and intended.  The cases when you knew better than to take an engagement with the questionable approach emerging from its preliminary discussions.  The cases when you should have realized that the client was not listening to what was clearly being said.

Precisely the situation involved with two unrelated Business Process Improvement engagements we took on within the past year, both on behalf of homebuilding companies that had approached us seeking assistance.

The first case was that of a large production builder (1,000+ homes a year, operating as a “collective” of three completely different building operations across parts of four states), a company to which we presented a spectrum of possible alternatives, a company which nevertheless insisted that its processes be mapped – be documented, improved, and published – to reflect a single, imposed business operating model on which no consensus had been created, a SHOULD-BE (future) state designed without any of the insight and understanding that would have naturally come from first mapping an AS-IS (current) state, all with a three month completion deadline.

The second case was that of another production builder, this one with a single interest regarding its processes.  It wanted to document and redesign a niche’ lot acquisition process, do it over the course of a single, combined three-day onsite meeting, and publish it in one month – a process mapping initiative typically performed on multiple processes in two, separate, three-day, onsite stages (AS-IS and SHOULD-BE) over a three to four month period.

In fact, when we wrote the engagement letters, we went so far as to characterize the requested approaches as “unorthodox” and “unprecedented”, in stating our concerns.

We should have paid more attention to the warning signs, but nothing in our 25+ years of consulting experience prepared us for what happened on these two engagements.  There had been dozens of previous process mapping engagements, all conducted successfully, over nearly three decades.  Both of the engagements described here had been thoroughly discussed, clearly defined, concerns raised with the client, in detail, before the engagements started.

In both cases, the root cause of the problem – what unwound the engagement – was the unwillingness on the part of the client to accept how business process mapping works, an unwillingness to listen or accept advice, coupled (in one case) with an insistence to take shortcuts and compromise results, in order to save time and money.

A major contributing factor on one of the engagements was the client’s abject failure to meet the known, given requirement of providing a prepared team that could manage the schedule, a matter we can prescribe, have to presume, but cannot control.

In retrospect, we did not agree with these approaches, nor recommend them, and we should not have accommodated them.  We delivered the work product exactly as specified, but these projects, in our view, were not successful;  they did not proceed forward as anticipated.  We will not repeat the mistake.  We would like other builders to hear this, to pay heed, to avoid similar mistakes if they ever choose to address their business processes.

But, first, let me say this:

Those of you who know me, know that I do not make a practice of promoting the capability or expertise of SAI Consulting on the pages of this weblog.  However, when it is advice that is being offered, it is different than offering an opinion or viewpoint, and it carries a requirement that whoever is offering the advice documents that he actually knows what he is talking about.

With that requirement in mind, when it comes to the documentation, analysis, measurement, design and redesign, improvement, and management of operating and business processes, SAI Consulting is the homebuilding industry’s leading expert.  We have done it longer, and we have done more of it, than any other consulting firm serving this industry.

It is our tour de force.

It is the area for which we are most recognized.  Virtually every consulting engagement we have ever accepted, in-or-out of homebuilding, has dealt – in some way – with how a client structures itself around its core-critical business processes.  And – we have provided this same insight and advice to others on hundreds of occasions.

Before the creation of the National Housing Quality (NHQ) Award, then-Service and Administrative Institute (SAI) was already assisting Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award winners in their efforts to refocus, restructure, and redesign their business operations around their processes.  Before there was any interest in the homebuilding industry in the documentation and management of business and operating processes, we were already recognized experts in that field.

Our process toolbox is the best in the industry.  We pioneered the development of many of the tools and techniques we use in this area.  We are a consulting partner with iGrafx, which has some of the most advanced process flowcharting and modeling software available;  we know, because we participated in a part of its development.

We are adept, or at least familiar, with every form of process documentation, including cross-functional flowcharting, value stream mapping, IDEF0 process modeling, and Business Process Modeling and Notation (BPMN).  We fully understand the methodologies – Total Quality Management (TQM), Business Process Improvement (BPI), Process Reengineering (BPR), Lean-Six Sigma (LSS), Theory of Constraints (TOC), and Lean/TPS – that act upon those documentation methods.

I am currently writing another business novel, in the tradition of The Pipeline: A Picture of Homebuilding Production, Second Edition©, that will be titled something like “Horizontal” (and sub-titled along the lines of “the workflow perspective that underlies the fundamental business proposition of every homebuilding company”).  Guess the subject matter?  Not surprisingly, it is Business Process Improvement.

Processes are important.  Business Process Improvement is important.

There is a reason for the centrality of business processes.  When you talk about an enterprise, whether it is a homebuilding company or a company in some other industry vertical, the most basic proposition of that enterprise – the reason for its existence, the way it makes money – is through the value that it delivers to customers and other stakeholders.  That value is only delivered by the work that the enterprise performs, that work has to be performed in some manner of workflow, and the most common form of that workflow is the work performed in processes.

Processes exist, whether enterprises are intentional about them or not.  Processes are important.  They are critical.

Lessons from the BPI graveyard, advice to clients:

  1. Listen to the experts, and do what they say.
  2. Let the current (AS-IS) state provide the perspective for the future (SHOULD-BE) state.
  3. Commit to a specific business operating model before you design the process.
  4. Don’t cut corners. Invest the time, money, and effort that process mapping requires.
  5. Get agreement and buy-in – win the commitment – from stakeholders.

If you have any questions or observations, please feel free to contact me: