BPM, Lean, and Six Sigma - Better Together

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Business improvement disciplines today are generally looked at as competing with one another. This article takes a different position. It is our belief that each of the major disciplines, BPM, Lean, and Six Sigma, have weaknesses that the others fill and that together, they provide a change environment that delivers the full promise of each. It is also our contention that a BPM environment that includes business and system models, rules, enterprise architecture, data use, and performance information, is critical in providing the context for Six Sigma or Lean based continuous improvement.

The old saying that “only the strong survive” has proven to be false. The real truth is that only those who are capable of adapting quickly and effectively to change survive.

From questions and comments in meetings, at conferences and just in hallway discussions, it is clear that many people continue to look at Lean, Six Sigma, and BPM and competing disciplines. To some degree, the Lean and Six Sigma supporters have found a way to co-exist and now we have Lean Six Sigma, but there still seems to be a general feeling that BPM is a competing (or alternative) approach. For many, it seems to be one or the other – Six Sigma along with Lean or BPM.

The purpose of this article is to debunk this separatist notion.  It is our belief that all three are needed to fulfill the often lofty promises of each of the disciplines. The simple fact is that so far, each of these disciplines alone has often failed to meet the hype.  However, together, they address one another’s weaknesses and deliver both speed of change and a way to focus improvement.  When combined, we believe that companies can, for the first time, both reach and sustain that optimization.

BPM provides the framework for Lean and Six Sigma

We believe that without the operational framework and information that BPM provides, the Lean and Six Sigma approaches can only provide temporary results and those at a high price in terms of analysis, change design, and implementation.

The problem is one of context.  Six Sigma is usually focused on improving an activity or group of steps toward achieving a specific improvement.  Lean is focused on a few activities at a time and looks at what may not provide enough value to keep.  Both are thus narrowly focused and lose sight of the big picture. BPM focuses on process and the workflow within organization units that together make up processes. This view allows for a cross functional process approach that looks at the entire organization - enterprise process management.  It also, provides the structure and links to the operation for performance measurement and management across the operation or process. Without this it is difficult to adequately measure performance.  Finally, without the speed of change that a BPM environment provides through simulation modeling, process management, and application generation, the time to change does not adequately support the needs of Six Sigma or Lean -- practitioners of these approaches must make due with what they can get from the operation and from IT.

Covering Weaknesses

Lean and Six Sigma applied in the context of individual processes have two serious weaknesses.  First, both Lean and Six Sigma focus on improving parts of an overall process. While this helps focus effort, it puts the scope of improvements in a specific vertical causing the improvement to be narrowly focused. This creates problems if isolated improvements sub-optimize the activity downstream in the process, causing problems in the flow of goods and services across the enterprise. 

The second weakness is that Lean and Six Sigma rely on resources from competing business groups (such as IT, other business units, and collaborative partners) and a cooperative view for work priorities.  Different business units often have their own high priority activities, and conflicts in priority can slow down improvements. This is true even with executive backing. 

Due to these limitations, neither approach can consistently deliver rapid change – even with a narrow scope. They can deliver constant change, but impact is diminished without an enterprise focus to ensure the relevancy of the change at the enterprise level. 

When applied strategically, at the enterprise level, BPM provides the framework for change in its process and workflow models. This is especially effective when application touch-points, legacy application functionality, data use and metrics are included with the normal work activities.  Such models allow information from one project and operation to link to those of the next project and build to form a complete picture of the process. Also, BPM provides proof of needed participation and inclusion by showing who is involved in any process or workflow, what that involvement produces, and how the product(s) are used.  This helps break down the barriers between groups and promotes inclusion and cooperation for a common good.  It also clearly shows the limitations in improvement if the groups involved in executing the end-to-end process are not engaged.

BPM, in and of itself, does not really have the rigor of a statistical method like Six Sigma to define opportunities for improvement. It does not have the focus of a Lean approach to reduce waste and inefficiency. However, it does provide the context for collecting the information needed to drive the Six Sigma and Lean methods. 

The problem has always been the ability to change rapidly.

A BPM environment contains all the operating information and the context of their execution. This information is all available and reusable. The BPM tools that support this environment allow any change project or any manager to look up comprehensive information, confirm it, and redesign the operation knowing the upstream and downstream impact, simulate changes, compare costs and improvement, and then decide on the best action. If a complete BPM tool suite has been used as the foundation for this change environment, business managers working with data analysts will now be able to generate the applications that manage their workflows and the overall processes, track work, and monitor performance. These operating management applications are generated from a combination of business models and rules definitions that are linked together.  Because this information is integrated within the BPM tool suite, it can be accessed and changed quickly with the operating management applications being automatically generated and regenerated to support any change.

The result is speed.  In this environment it is now possible to change the business operation, its application support and its data access quickly.  If the IT group has moved to an SOA based application and data access approach, these changes may be able to happen in days. Legacy application function and data interface changes are still a problem, but in some cases the automation support can be generated outside the legacy environment to save time and improve flexibility. 

It is our belief that this adaptability and the ability to adapt fast and then continuously adapt and improve will become an extinction level avoidance capability in the future.

It is this speed that makes all the difference and allows the operation to become flexible and deliver both initial and sustained business optimization as Lean and Six Sigma techniques to continually focus improvement.

More than Each Alone

Realizing the true potential of operational improvement requires that teams become open to using a range of tools and optional methodologies to deliver both immediate improvement and focused continuous improvement. This mixture of disciplines should also take advantage of the speed that BPM and BPM tools can deliver. It is this speed that makes the difference. 

To provide the needed foundation, the BPM environment delivers the models and information on the business, the rules, the performance, the applications, and the data flow that allows it to be properly applied. This thus provides the context for Lean use, and through simulation an immediate evaluation of the benefits of any proposed change.

Similarly, this environment provides the framework for Six Sigma use. It provides a complete view of the activities being measured, a way to measure flow and performance at any activity in the process and the anchor points for Six Sigma statistical measurements. 

The speed of designing and implementing change allows both Lean and Six Sigma to create improvement that can be implemented in a timely manner and thus provide immediate impact. It is this immediate impact that allows an operation to reach and sustain optimization.

As a result, it is clear that when these disciplines work together, outcomes can deliver the benefits of all three.

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