Process Discovery


It would be nice to think that, when analyzing processes, we could always rely on our organizations having a neat and up-to-date repository of concise and precise process models. Whilst some mature organizations may indeed have these models available, I suspect many people reading this article will have experienced situations where there is little evidence of any kind of formal process modeling or management taking place. We might find that some processes have evolved over years (or decades), passed from worker to worker like a master craftsman passes on knowledge to their apprentice. This may have inadvertently led to inconsistencies in approach, unnecessary waste, and processes that are difficult to monitor, maintain or change. Problems may be rife, and there may be an urgent need to carry out some kind of alleviating action. A sensible first step in this situation is to start to engage with stakeholders to understand and analyze the current set of processes, but the challenge can be knowing where to start.

Of course, we may be invited to examine particular processes and activities first as these are the ones causing the most problems. We may be given a list of 'fires' or perceived 'quick wins'. Yet, if we examine these individual components in isolation without understanding the broader process architecture, there is always the danger that our actions may inadvertently make things worse. We might simply 'move' the problem elsewhere, to another unsuspecting stakeholder group. We may be innocently duped into a firefighting cycle where we forever address localized symptoms, but never have the opportunity to identify the underlying root causes.

In situations like this, it has been said that starting to model top down is crucial. This perspective is hard to argue against—unless we know about the end-to-end top-level processes that are enabling value for the customer (along with the necessary supporting processes) it is difficult to imagine how we will be able to seek out genuine business improvement. Yet, stakeholders might be reluctant to start with such a high level and seemingly abstract view of the world. We might face pressure to engage at a much more detailed and granular level, and face resistance when we want to initially focus at the very top level. This can create tension, and a feeling that we are 'letting the fires burn' rather than working to extinguish them. We risk disengagement if we do not carefully manage expectations. 

There is an alternative approach which, when carefully deployed, can help us bridge this gap in expectation. We can work simultaneously both top down and bottom up. We can work with our stakeholders to 'discover' the low-level processes and catalogue them. We can speak to relevant 'actors' involved with the process(es), perhaps using elicitation techniques including questionnaires, workshops, interviews and observation. Initially we might capture basic details such as process names, actor(s), triggering events, outcomes/outputs and process owners (if we can identify them). This will undoubtedly create useful conversations about interconnections, localized waste and potential problem areas which can be captured for consideration also. Yet this conversation is, by its nature, couched in terms of the wider process landscape—reducing the risk of us inadvertently focusing on purely localized perspectives. In doing so, we bring the stakeholders with us on our journey.

We can use these lower level processes, along with other information that we elicit, to 'construct' a higher level view. We can then illustrate this to our stakeholders, showing them multiple views of their process hierarchy. We can validate what is happening against what they think should happen, and foster useful conversations about where the organizational strategy is taking us and what that will mean (in the future) for the processes and activities. We can show whether the organization is siloed, and show the kind of end-to-end experiences that customers receive. By simultaneously working top-down and bottom-up we create engagement with a range of stakeholders, allowing us to make the exercise as relevant as possible for all involved.

Whilst in an ideal world we would start top-down, when carefully and thoughtfully executed, a top-down and bottom-up approach (that is carefully managed so it meets in the middle) can keep us moving and create useful and valuable conversations.