OD or BPM: Pick Only One?

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Organizational life is not a natural act. We humans are well suited for the mostly faceto- face interaction of the medium-sized tribe; everything beyond that is a push. It is not surprising that we often find that our organizations do not function as neatly as we might hope. Faced with this challenge, business leaders today have a perplexing choice: Should they work on the work (BPM) or work on the worker (OD)?

Organizational development – one side of this artificial divide – has long pushed for a focus on people.

Organizational life is not a natural act. We humans are well suited for the mostly faceto- face interaction of the medium-sized tribe; everything beyond that is a push. It is not surprising that we often find that our organizations do not function as neatly as we might hope. Faced with this challenge, business leaders today have a perplexing choice: Should they work on the work (BPM) or work on the worker (OD)?

Organizational development – one side of this artificial divide – has long pushed for a focus on people. Work environments, we’ve argued, are often corrosive or even exploitative and it is time to attend to the worker. So we focused on issues of morale, resilience, work/home balance; our tools were changing company culture, coaching for management style, clarifying values, building work group norms, training interpersonal skills, and the ubiquitous employee survey.

The process improvement movement – and its modern voice through BPM – argued that the real issues are in the work, not in the worker. Even the most humane work environment does not automatically deliver sustainable and efficient value to the customer. And the corrosive atmosphere OD has complained about is primarily the result of confusing, conflicting, or overlapping work activities. The tools were work process definition, process characterization, process stabilization and measurement, and a variety of strategies for work process improvement (PI, CPI, Lean, etc.). Attending to the work, it is argued, is the most direct route to taking care of the worker.

Those of us committed to better organizations should spare our clients from being forced to choose one or the other. In fact, it falls on us to find ways to blend the two into a more robust and flexible approach to organizational improvement. This paper outlines one such offering. Both approaches have much to offer organizations, and both are right in important ways. Work environments can be corrosive; we should worry about how we treat the people we employ. Most problems are in the work; we need to actually design how value is created and back away from the organizational chart as the architectural tool for the organization.

Our first step is dial back the arrogance to which each movement sometimes falls prey. In reality, process improvement efforts often fail. Ideally it is a company-wide orientation, but large-scale implementations are often the most vulnerable. It can take years to infuse an organization with the process improvement mind set and tool set, and the path is fraught with obstacles and dead-ends. And as the role of the business process analyst has become ever more technical (BPMN!) and complicated, the employee becomes ever more passive in the process.

Organizational improvement needs to be equally humble. The typical “team building retreat” is often just a warm and fuzzy experience that fades within the week. Even when we’re successful in changing culture, the impact on profitability is often elusive and unstable. Organizations keep evolving on their own, and not always in an everupward trajectory. A few new leaders can wipe out years of diligent effort. If we focus on better relationships, those advantage can evaporate as people move around or move out.

So we should be sharing notes in the hope of upgrading the impact and value of both traditions. Ideally we would have an approach that illuminates potential improvements in both the design of the work and the environment for the worker.

We have a proposal for just such a process: High Speed System Improvement. It involves 4 steps.


Meet with a few key players in the organization (leaders, long-tenured employees, people with experience in multiple departments) and build a macro work map of the organization.

The map should capture the 6-15 key work processes of the company, without regard to departmental location or staffing. Basically we agree that the starting point of a combined OD/BPM effort should be the work itself. And that review of the work should exemplify a process that conveys respect and support. We also do not want to adopt all the constraints that might be typical in a formal BPM effort. The macro map we want should be immediately recognizable and intelligible to the average employee; it is not intended as an initial tool for the analyst. The goal is not automation, but a shared holistic awareness.


Present the map at an All-Hands meeting and lay out the survey strategy. All employees are invited to respond to a short survey for each work process. The questions are the same, and employees can choose how many and for whichprocesses they wish to contribute their thoughts.

The topics in the survey would be some subset of the following questions:

  1. The quality of the outcome or product of the work process. Are the decisions sound? Is the data reliable and accurate? Are the products sound and as designed? Are the reports adequate for those who read them and use them?
  2. The quality of the interaction among the workers in the process. Is the interaction candid? Creative? Collaborative?
  3. Ask for 1-2 examples of successful operation of the process.
  4. Ask for 1-2 examples of unsuccessful operation of the process.
  5. The employee’s relationship to the process. Participant? Contributor? Customer? Manager? We’d certainly want to see if participant and customer view the same process in very different ways.
  6. There are some additional questions that would make sense only for the participants in work process:

  7. In this work activity, we learn from our mistakes without personal attack or recrimination.
  8. Our work processes are becoming more streamlined and error-free with time and experience.
  9. Is this work activity done (a) within one department, (b) across 2 departments, or (c) across 3+ departments?

Questions such as these provide additional insight about potential problems in attempting to focus on work activities and reflect on errors.

It would be best to use just 4-5 questions, but different clients may find a different set of questions to be most relevant.


Collect and analyze the data. A website replicates the macro map employees saw in the orientation meeting. Clicking on a box takes them to the short survey for that process. Once completed, they return to the map and have the option to click on another process.

While the data set could be extremely rich, the purpose is not to turn this into a data mining exercise. The macro map can be used for the data feedback. The color coding of the boxes can provide an adequate summary of the findings.


Infuse the data back into the employee discussion. Reconvene the All-Hands group to review the colored macro map in as large a format as possible. Ideally it would be enough to almost cover an entire wall. We want room for people to write on the chart, and room for lots of people at the chart at a single time.

The graphic representation on the wall is more than just a strategy for communicating information. There is something powerful about having employees stand shoulder-toshoulder working on a problem “up there” rather than sitting around the typical Ushaped table arrangement and voicing their concerns face-to-face.

Beyond the impact on the interaction in the room, the work map again brings the focus to specific work activities. Too often employee concerns are expressed as a generic complaint about “decision-making”, “communication”, “cooperation”, or “trust”. The resulting discussion can quickly slide into thinly veiled attacks on particular leaders or managers.

The game plan for the discussion is as follows:

  • Translate the color-coding of the work map into a short narrative about where the company would find the greatest return on their improvement investment.
  • Qualify the ideas about valuable starting points by putting the suggested targets in the context of the company’s strategic plan.
  • Be open to issues or possibilities that are outside the current strategic plan.
  • For the few processes that clearly warrant deeper discussion, the successful and unsuccessful case studies provide grist for the mill.
  • The final step is translating the outcomes of the meeting into specific projects.

The steps outlined above would typically be topics for the tables of 6-8 employees, with report-outs captured live on the map and/or on a separate butcher paper tableau.

The goal of High Speed System Improvement is the following:

  • Appropriate and balanced attention to the work and the worker.
  • Building a widely-shared understanding of problems and priorities.
  • Keeping specific projects properly anchored in a holistic view of the company.

In summary, our proposal combines simple survey technology, work mapping, and facilitation to help companies set priorities for improvement projects. Those projects could focus on work process design, structural changes, interpersonal skills, company culture, leadership style, or a number of other themes. The important point is that the choice of focus is not an a priori decision based on the ideological preferences of the consultant or executive; it emerges out of a shared understanding among the employees.

And whatever the change project might be, it has the enormous benefit of employee momentum behind it. Even critically needed change projects often stumble because employees are neutral or even resistant. When they have had a key role in finding and defining the right change effort, that energy turns smoothly into a well supported implementation.

After all, the goal is not to be right (OD vs. BPM), but rather to have a positive impact (OD and BPM)!

Jerry Talley

is an independent consultant specializing in advanced problem solving, strategic planning, and board governance. For 15 years of his practice he has built and analyzed major employee and organizational surveys for companies. Now he uses this new approach qith quick surveys to get frequent input for projects and corporations. He finds the results creates geater dialog and more imeediate action for needed change.


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