Michelangelo’s approach to workflow discovery

Take any existing workflow — any people driven business process — and I expect that most of the tasks within it could best be described as cruft.

cruft: /kruhft/
[very common; back-formation from crufty]

  1. n. An unpleasant substance. The dust that gathers under your bed is cruft; the TMRC Dictionary correctly noted that attacking it with a broom only produces more.
  2. n. The results of shoddy construction.
  3. vt. [from hand cruft, pun on ‘hand craft’] To write assembler code for something normally (and better) done by a compiler (see hand-hacking).
  4. n. Excess; superfluous junk; used esp. of redundant or superseded code.
  5. [University of Wisconsin] n. Cruft is to hackers as gaggle is to geese; that is, at UW one properly says “a cruft of hackers”.

The Jargon File, v4.4.7

Capturing and improving a workflow (optimising it even) is a processes of removing cruft to identify what really needs to be there. This is remarkably like Michalangelo{{1}}’s approach to carving David{{2}}. When asked how he created such a beautiful sculpture, everything just as it should be, Michalangeo responded (and I’m paraphrasing):

[[1]]Michelangelo Buonarroti[[1]]
[[2]]Michelangelo’s David[[2]]

Michelangelo's David

Michelangelo's David

David was always there in the limestone; I just carved away the bits that weren’t David.

Cruft is the result of the people — the knowledge workers engaged in the process — dealing with the limitations of last decade’s technology. Cruft is the work-arounds and compensating actions for a fragmented and conflicting IT environment, an environment which gets in the road more often than it supports the knowledge workers. Or cruft might be the detritus of quality control and risk management measures put in place some time ago (decades in many instances) to prevented an expensive mistake that is no longer possible.

Most approaches to workflow automation are based on some sort of process improvement methodology, such as LEAN or Six Sigma. These methods work: I’ve often heard is stated that pointing Six Sigma at a process results in a 30% saving, each and every time. They do this by aggressively removing variation in the process — slicing away unnecessary decisions, as each decisions is an opportunity for a mistake. These decisions might represent duplicated decisions, redundant process steps, or unnecessarily complicated handoffs.

There’s a couple of problems with this though, when dealing with workflow. Looking for what’s redundant doesn’t create an explicit link between business objectives and the steps in the workflow, explicitly justifying each step’s existence, making it hard to ensure that we caught all the cruft. And the aggressive removal of variation can strip a process’s value along with its cost.

Much of the cruft in a workflow process is there for historical reasons. These reasons can range from something bad happened a long time in the past through to we don’t know why, but if we don’t do that then the whole thing falls over. A good facilitator will challenge seemingly obsolete steps, identifying those steps who have served their purpose and should be removed. However, it’s not possible to justify every step without quickly wearing down subject matter experts. Some obsolete steps will always leak through, no matter how many top-down and bottom-up iterations we do.

We can also find that we reach the end of the processes improvement journey only to find that much of the process’s value — the exceptions and variation that make the process valuable — has been cut out to make the process more efficient or easier to implement. In the quest for more science in our processes, we’ve eliminated the art that we relied on.

If business process management isn’t a programming challenge{{3}}, then this holds even truer for human driven workflow.

[[3]]A business process is not a programming challenge @ PEG[[3]]

What we need is a way to chip away the cruft and establish a clear line of traceability between the goals of each stakeholder involved in the process, and each step and decision in the workflow. And we need to do this in a way that allows us to balance art and science.

I’m pretty sure that Michalangeo had a good idea of what he wanted to create when he started belting on the chisel. He was looking for something in the rock, the natural seems and faults, that would let him find David. He kept the things that supported his grand plan, while chipping away those that didn’t.

For a workflow processes, these are the rules, tasks and points of variation that knowledge workers use to navigate their way through the day. Business rules and tasks are the basic stuff of workflow: decisions, data transformation and hand-offs between stakeholders. Points of variation let us identify those places in a workflow where we want to allow variation — alternate ways of achieving the one goal — as a way of balancing art and science.

Rather than focus on programming the steps of the process, worrying if we should send an email or a fax, we need to make this (often) tacit knowledge explicit. Working top-down, from the goals of the business owners, and bottom-up, from the hand-offs and touch-points with other stakeholders, we can chip away at the rock. Each rule, task or point of variation we find is measured against our goals to see if we should chip it away, or leave it to become part of the sculpture.

That which we need stays, that which is unnecessary is chipped away.

Posted under: Business Process Management

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