The APQC Blog

Does Your Business Process Model Have Too Many Rules?

I was able to talk to Ronald G. Ross Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC and Executive Editor, Business Rules Journal Business Rules Journal, about how to build a better business process model and why having too many rules can be a problem. What is the main reason people still focus on making traditional process models? We’ve turned so quickly into a knowledge economy that many people simply haven’t adjusted. You naturally try to stay in your comfort zone when the world around you is abuzz with change. Traditional views of modeling work go back more than a hundred years to Frederick W. Taylor and his then revolutionary innovations in the steel industry. Taylor’s idea was essentially to standardize labor into minimal, highly repetitive tasks that required no decisions whatsoever by workers. When automation hit big in the second half of the 20th century, that paradigm fit perfectly. Computers were perfectly suited to automating standard, highly repetitive tasks that required little thought or deliberation. It was a perfect storm of innovation. But now the world has changed. Most business processes are already automated. Thanks to the internet, consumers are far more informed. Complexity and the rate of change are confounding traditional methods. And we wrestle with the issue of business governance and compliance at every turn. Meanwhile, Moore’s Law has sent the raw power of computing skyrocketing. It’s time we opened our minds to fresh ideas about process models. Are there certain kinds of organizations in which tightly integrated process models – where rules and processes exist on the same model – are valuable? We’ve work in virtually every industry you can name – manufacturing, retail, utilities, insurance, financial services, taxation, education and more – and we have yet to see one. I suppose if you were baking a process onto a computer chip, that might be OK. But hardcoding of rules is exactly the opposite of what businesses need. The point is that the rules will change. You must engineer your solution so they can – easily and reliably. What you want is the latest possible binding of processes and rules – preferably at the time of performance or execution. Up until that point, separation is key to both simplification of process models and increased agility. What is the best way to identify if your process model has too many business rules and decisions embedded in process models? If you walk into a meeting room, and all four walls are covered by processes models, it’s probably a safe bet. We run into that all the time. If you have to get out of your chair and go up to the wall in a small room to read the model, that’s another sure sign. We immediately look for series of binary check points – in a flowchart what would be diamonds. I guarantee that much of the time those series of diamonds pertain to embedded business rules. The model is typically laying out how to test or apply those business rules procedurally. That’s almost always going to be multi-step or multi-test – sometimes a great many steps or tests. Now ask yourself how many business rules pertain to the process overall. Dozens? Hundreds? More? Is it any wonder that the process models become so complex? In my view the real value of process models is to trace, analyze and communicate how value-add is created in a business through a series of transforms. Embedded business rules directly subverts that purpose. What is the key to simplifying business process models but still getting the results and quality you want? Instead of embedding rules procedurally in a process model, they should be specified separately in declarative, business-friendly form. We use RuleSpeak for that. That way both the process model and the rules can be vetted directly to ensure validity. Done properly, you can simplify a business process model by an order of magnitude or more. We’ve seen it happen time and time again. According to relevant standards there are actually two fundamental kinds of business rules: behavioral rules and definitional rules. Both need to be separated from process models, but each is best approached in its own way. Behavioral rules are people rules. As the name suggests, they shape people’s behavior – even when that behavior is automated. The key with behavioral rules is that they can be violated. So separately from the process model, you want to ask about how strictly each behavioral rule should be enforced, and what business response is appropriate when it is violated. Those things don’t belong in a process model per se. Behavioral rules are about governance and compliance. Traditional process models have simply never yielded the traceability needed to address those issues effectively. For me, the biggest question is not how well your business process performs; but rather whether it produces the correct results. That’s a matter of behavioral rules. The second kind of business rule, definitional rules, shapes knowledge and information. In one way or another all such rules are about making decisions. Such rules can’t be violated; they simply determine what outcome or result is appropriate to a business question under specified circumstances. In a knowledge economy, more and more of the problems and opportunities lie on the ‘smart’ side of processes – not the mindless, routine work, but that parts that require deliberation. That’s where we need to break free of the old process paradigm arising from Frederick Taylor’s day. Some people question whether operational business decisions can be automated. Sure they can – if you know the rules. What are the benefits of automating operational business decisions? The biggest one is simple consistency. Ask experts what the three most important factors in customer experience are and they will tell you “consistency, consistency and consistency”. Process models simply don’t work well for analysis of decisions and capture of decision logic. In the past several years new techniques have emerged, for example our question charts – Q-Charts for short. They are highly complementary to process models, but focus strictly on business-friendly decomposition of decisions. What pre-work can an organization do to ensure success of a later project that builds models without rules? In a perfect world an organization would know exactly what all its business rules are at a given point in time, as well as where they are currently deployed and what authorizations you need to change them. The rules would be well managed and single-sourced in the automated equivalent of a rulebook. There the rules could evolve easily and be directly reused with straightforward traceability over time. That’s what I call having ‘single source of business truth’. Most organizations today are nowhere close to that. You do find isolated local-area approximations but only in a few organizations. The price organizations pay in churn and wasted labor as a result is almost beyond measure. Some hard, pervasive adjustments are needed in our current practices to operate effectively in the knowledge economy. What would I look for to see whether a company is moving in the right direction? I’d ask whether it has started some business-side rule management initiative. I’d ask whether it has begun modeling decision-oriented processes using the new techniques I mentioned. These steps inevitably lead companies to some critical rethinking about matters of governance and core business policy. That always proves a healthy exercise. Ultimately I believe it’s the price companies must pay to operate effectively in the knowledge economy. Ron Ross will be giving his presentation ‘Building Smart Processes for Smarter Business’ during APQC’s 2014 Process Improvement Conference October 16-17. You can also follow Ron on Twitter @Ronald_G_Ross.