Business process management (BPM) is the act of measuring and improving business processes.
A business process is the series of steps a business takes to achieve a certain business goal. Example processes: how we approve contracts, requesting and approving time off, onboarding a new customer, or handling invoices from vendors.
You start doing BPM once you've realized your processes aren't working and you need a solution.
When you need BPM — the Process Maturity Curve
Organizations go through a series of phases of maturity with their process management. As managers, it's important to see where you are on the curve and work toward moving to the later phases:
Phase 1: No Defined Process
Processes emerge naturally after changes happen to a business. For example, you might develop a new way of training customers to use your product when you enter a new and unfamiliar market. These early proto-processes are handled by a small number of employees, doing the best they can to get to the goal. Every member of the team is doing the process differently, leading to wildly different business results.
Phase 2: Poorly Followed Process
The next phase begins when some best practices start emerging. For example, one of the more senior members of the team might send out some notes on how they're handling part of the process, so that others can learn from them. Or, a manager might write down a flowchart of how they'd like the process to work. However, at this phase, no one is enforcing these practices. There's still a wide discrepancy between what the business needs and what the process is delivering.
Phase 3: Defined And Followed Process
At this phase, someone has realized that things need to be standardized (often because a manager had their bonus tied to the result). Documents and diagrams are produced showing what the steps should be, and employees are trained on the procedure. Through supervision, gradually the process is adopted and followed. More consistent results occur, though perhaps not the optimal results. It's around this stage that BPM becomes important, because you have a real process to measure and improve.
Phase 4: Measured and Improved Process
In this most mature phase, managers and operations teams can begin to improve the process itself, now that people are actually following it. They can use BPM tools like Wrangle to measure and track work flowing through the process. Using that information, they can see how long the process takes, which steps are bottlenecks, and begin to see ways that the process could be re-engineered to get better results.
Goals of Business Process Management
The ultimate goal of an BPM effort is to achieve the process's business goals, by increasing profit and increasing the speed of the process. You also want to increase accountability, since business processes are often making key decisions. Practically that means BPM has these specific goals:
Improve process coordination
The first goal of BPM is to identify, document, and broadcast the process to the team, to make sure everyone understands their role. It's also key to make sure other teams who rely on this process understand how it works and who is involved.
A coordinated BPM effort should then look to track the process, measuring how long it takes at each step. Whether manually compiled, or generated from a BPM tool you're using, you can then use this timing data to find areas to improve. This is the foundation for a business process re-engineering effort.
Drive accountability in the process
With BPM measurements, you can identify where your team is failing as well. You'll find certain steps that take far longer than expected, allowing you to investigate why that's happening. You'll also be able to show members of your team when they're not performing their role to the same level as everyone else. Certain business processes — especially in legal, finance, and HR — have regulatory requirements, so you need well-documented audit trails ensuring the process was followed.
Automate the process
Finally, BPM software now exists that can take the manual steps out of tracking and operating your process. A tool like Wrangle can track each time someone starts the process, and then notify the people at each step when it's their turn to act. Wrangle even gives them one-click buttons to approve requests, complete tasks, and input data into forms. BPM automation means no more lost work, no more emailing people when it's their turn, and no more tracking the process by hand in spreadsheets.
Who Does BPM Projects?
There are two types of employees that work on BPM efforts:
Managers: BPM projects are often initiated by a frustrated manager that knows the team can do better. Sometimes, two managers realize that their teams have to coordinate to complete a process, and both look to a centralized BPM effort to bridge the gap and make sure both sides can coordinate.
Operations professionals: When a team is large enough, employees dedicated to the improving procedures on the team take over. These operations professionals can bring software systems and expertise, like Lean/Six Sigma, to bear on measuring and improving business processes.
How Do BPM Tools Work?
BPM software takes away the tedium of documenting, tracking, and running your processes.
They are made up of a set of features to accomplish this:
- Visual mapping: a good BPM tools is like a digital whiteboard, letting you draw out a flowchart of how the process is supposed to work. You can document who is assigned to each step and what type of work is supposed to be performed.
- Intake forms: Business processes need a lot of context. For example, in a process to approve a quote for a prospective customer, we need to know what the customer wants and when they want it. BPM tools have form builders you can use to make sure all of that context is gathered before anyone needs to take action on it.
- Approvals and tasks: Lots of work gets lost in inboxes and spreadsheets. With BPM software, there are explicit buttons for giving approval, completing tasks, inputting data, or requesting changes. That way, the actions are tracked in software that everyone has access to.
- Notifications: BPM software removes the drudgery of emailing people that you're done with your step and it's time for them to do theirs. Since the app is tracking the approvals and tasks, it knows when one step is complete, so it can notify the next group in the chain.
- Audit trails: By tracking all the work happening in the process, the BPM software gives a clear record of who approved things and who completed tasks. That way, you can look back in the future if you have any questions.
- Analytics: The heart of business process management is to actually improve the process. Because things are tracked in the BPM system, a good BPM tool has analytics on how each step in the process is doing and reports that show where you can improve.
How to Get Started On BPM
You've already taken the first step — learning about BPM and how it's practiced. Here are the next few steps:
- Learn about Wrangle, to see how software can automate and measure your process
- Learn about business process re-engineering, the art of re-designing your process to make it better