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What’s so hard about process modeling?

Blog: - Rick Geneva

Process modeling today is more about managing complexity than it is drawing a diagram. Even the as-is process model is very complex these days. The individual worker has never been more empowered, due to the technology we employ. What used to be the work of 10 people can now be accomplished by 1 person. But these efficiency gains come at a price. A human being can only do so many things before they become saturated with information. Task prioritization becomes difficult.

Often I get an email from my boss that contains one or two short sentences. Sometimes I reply with a long description of my idea. He then replies to me saying “this is too long. Please revise and I’ll read your response”. The first time I saw this reply I was a bit surprised, and slightly offended. It took nearly a half hour to craft that wonderful email and he won’t even bother to read it. But then I realized how much work he must be handling on a daily basis. He’s constantly connected to people around the globe, with people in almost every time zone. So if I write an email that takes 5 minutes to read, this is only one of 100 other emails that also take 5 minutes to read. 500 minutes of emails a day? That’s more than 8 hours!

The point here is that the individual worker is hitting a point of information saturation. Not only are we asked to answer 100+ emails per day, but we are also tasked with meetings back-to-back all day long. So when do we have time to get anything done? I don’t know about you, but the only time I seem to get anything creative done I’m at cruising altitude on an airplane. Now my personal space at 33,000 ft (10,000 meters) is also being invaded (you have no personal space in coach class except in the confines of your mind, knowing that nobody will bother you for at least a few hours). Wi-Fi internet access is available on many flights. When airborne Wi-Fi is free someday, I’ll no longer have any excuse for not replying instantly to everyone who believes their request is the most important, above everyone else’s.

Process modeling 20 years ago was mostly about sequential activities. A worker would receive an assignment and complete it, then pass the file to the next person for subsequent activity. It was very natural to use flowcharts or swimlane diagrams to show the flow of process instance. But today we are more and more event driven. Processes are fragmented, distributed, globalized, and virtualized. Workers don’t work a regular 9 to 5 schedule. In fact, you cannot rely on someone even coming into the office because many people work from home one or more days per week. And they do this why? Because coming into the office often means being overrun by communication and unplanned events. There’s just no time to get anything done at the office.

Have you ever taken the time to model out a simple process that happens every day? For example, someone wants to create a proposal, and it requires feedback from 4 or 5 people. After feedback is collected, the manager will make the final approval or ask for someone to make some changes. How many times per day does this happen in your organization? How often does this occur over email? Try to model this process including all of the details, just to see how complicated it really is. Once you understand the simple process like this, it’s much easier to understand the complexity of a large process.

Most business analysts won’t take the time to do this sort of exercise. Instead, I see countless process models in a flowchart that is over-simplified and contains mixed objectives. I’m not suggesting that every process should include every intricate detail imaginable. I’m only suggesting that you try this exercise once, and see if it helps you understand the bigger picture.

The process called “Proposal gets approved” which leads to “was approved” and then loops back to “work on proposal” seems simple enough. But it does not consider the event based model that is the reality of the scenario.

Proposal Approval Fowchart

Proposal Approval Fowchart

First, the process model assumes that everyone is available, waiting for the initial request (false). Most likely, the participants are in meetings, flying to meet a customer, or out of the office. Then the process assumes that everyone involved is well informed and will likely agree (false). When is the last time you asked for 5 people to agree on something? Five people from five different job positions and backgrounds are not going to agree on anything. Everyone has their own agenda, and perspective on the process. And finally it’s assumed that the manager will like what he sees and approve it most of the time (false). It’s much more likely that 3 or 4 revisions will be requested from 2 or 3 of the participants. In my experiences with this type of process, what usually happens is that the process never actually completes. Instead we run out of time. Then the manager ends up overriding some of the inputs and submitting the proposal. A few days later some brilliant feedback is submitted from one of the participants who was visiting a customer in another time zone on the other side of world. But it’s too late to include these ideas because the proposal has already been submitted.

Now that we have taken a look at the reality of the scenario, redraw your process model to accommodate the various events that can occur. Include the various deadlines (all of them). Include the various exceptional conditions that might occur (such as someone introduction of new information which might cause a complete revision). Include the assumption that people will not respond in time (take the pessimistic approach rather than the happy path). Also take into consideration that there might be more possible outcomes than what was originally planned for. Additional opportunities might arise during the creation of the proposal, or maybe the entire project must be scrapped due to unforeseen circumstances.

As a reminder, this is a very simple process… or is it?

This exercise is intended to be a warm-up to the real world. I often do this myself before I start on a large process. It gets me thinking about the exceptional conditions and helps me detect situations that were never discussed. It’s amazing how often I find organizations that have processes with no plans for the “what-if” scenario. Everything seems to route to one person whenever there is a problem. So what happens when that person is not available? Process deadlock? Maybe it’s ok to tell your customer that their request is being ignored by a middle manager. In my job, that could get me fired.

Process modeling is not about the ideal, optimized path where everything runs smoothly. That’s the easy part. Any middle manager with Visio can create a flowchart for that. Your job as a process analyst is to create a bullet-proof model that has a plan for everything, but simultaneously doesn’t bog the reader down with too many details. This is what is hard about process modeling.

– Rick Geneva

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