When it’s a system!
Modern processes are complicated. Since the transition from manufacturing and Adam Smith’s pin factory the processes we are involved in at work are very rarely ridged, fixed and perfectly repeatable. More often than not they require skill and judgement to execute properly.
What makes them so complicated? We no longer work on a fixed production line where a known quantity of raw materials come in, each actor plays a specific part in the transformation and widgets are produced.
Today we have to take a multitude of inputs, we interact with our environment taking numerous signals and having to make decisions based on the information we have.
And yet most approaches to understanding and visualising process is based on this fixed view of the factory with very clear and detailed responsibilities, inputs and outputs.
Open System Theory
Open System theory describes systems as units that transform inputs into outputs but also recognise that the system has a boundary that is permeable. That is the system interacts with, and is influenced by, it’s environment in many more ways than just the input and output.
What’s key to understanding a system, and why it delivers the results it does, is understanding the relationship it has with it’s environment.
Notice how more traditional approaches to process are focused on the activities that happen. Relationships between activities are normally established based on the order they happen in or the role, or function, that performs them.
System Based Processes
It’s clear that modern processes are more likely to resemble systems rather than the traditional manufacturing process. So how do we model this type of process?
We based our approach on the IDEF0 functional modelling approach. It still describes flows of activities, and who does them, but there is more of a focus on the individual inputs and outputs of each activity. That is we focus more on the relationships between activities.
During digital process discovery it is these inputs and outputs that drive the most informative discussions. The inputs and outputs of each activity are like contracts between activities. Especially when those activities are done by different people. We are not just identifying a handover, as swimlanes help you to, but we also specify what is handed over. And this needs to be agreed between the parties.
What’s more, we can capture roles against each step and tag those according level of responsibility (e.g. RACI). This helps to better understand the boundary. We can use the attachments to gather further relations to other types of information such as business rules, policies, systems and so on.
A reference model for the business
The advantage of this approach is that it builds on the traditional visual approach to process. It takes those important aspects, showing the flow of activities, who does them and in what order, and builds on them by allowing us to understand better how they relate to each other.
This helps us get better agreement among diverse team members. It provides a reference point for discussions and changes and helps to focus in on where improvements can be made.