Workflow & BPM for the Sake of Crisis Management and Business Continuity

You may have heard the story and seen the headlines this week: Largest Recall of Meat in US History. You may have seen the other headline: FEMA Trailers Spewing Toxic Fumes in Louisiana. Both stories, and countless like them every year, reflect one of the oft-overlooked reasons to manage workflow and analyze business process: improving quality for the sake of safety and avoiding crisis.

Had the California-based meat processing plant assigned a workflow analyst and – more importantly – had they had the integrity to fully-implement a food safety and quality program, they could have avoided the embarrassment of being outed by a Humane Society undercover video sting that captured illegal employees on tape shoving disabled and handicapped cows into slaughter. School kids across the country eat that meat for lunch. Had FEMA had any quality controls in place and contracted with a supplier that managed its processes in accordance with standards, 30,000 trailers – home to Hurricane Katrina victims – wouldn’t be victimizing their inhabitants a second time – with toxic fumes, no less.

Crisis Management Planning Core to Business Continuity (Survival)

I have conducted crisis management planning with organizations and was always surprised at how little forethought went into it. It’s symptomatic of leadership and personnel at all levels. I became convinced early on that the very best way to spot potential crisis before it hits the headlines is to apply workflow and business process analysis tactics and principles. An organization that doesn’t know what its employees are doing is ripe for crisis. An organization that doesn’t see process issues and risks as a high-priority is setting itself up for disaster. Failure to examine and analyze anything more than the bottom-line is failure some companies frankly deserve.

Crisis management planning often involves scenarios that managers need to respond to answering questions like: what would you do if the phones were dead? What would you do if the power went out? Who will handle the press relations if there is a violent death on-site. Little to no attention is paid to the glaring and obvious opportunities to assess how quality of work can cause a crisis and how easily it can be mitigated by re-engineering workflow. ISO 9000 and other standards help industries by offering best practices and some industries are vigorous in their audit of quality controls. Sadly, enforcement is weak in many industries and self-induced adherence to best practice is a discipline many organizations lack.

The irony is that, of all things that could go wrong, workflow-related phenomena are easily identifiable, easily modified, easily monitored and measured and the consequences of failure to do so can mean complete ruin. FEMA’s reputation and that of their supplier is in serious trouble. I would imagine their supplier will be crippled by this. The meat processor is not only hiring illegal workers which reflects a breakdown in HR and personnel workflow but these workers are afraid for their jobs when their input and output aren’t maximized by leveraging a supply of sick and crippled cows. I would imagine this business is counting days till their doors close permanently. They should be.

What Crisis is Waiting to Happen in Your Shop?

All of us are responsible for risk management. When workflow and business process analysis become the domain and tool of IT only, nobody else knows how to detect workflow-related issues and risks with any precision. If you’ve gathered issues and risks as a function of developing requirements, what have you done with them since the day you gathered them? As a business or systems analyst, do you bring them back to the attention of management with any frequency? Do they become quality improvement initiatives? Is there a project manager assigned?

Management by Crisis

I have a particular disdain for management by crisis. Waiting until something happens as a strategy for prioritizing workflow and process re-engineering is a mistake. This is where analysts and developers need to step up and invite risk management folks and corporate counsel to meetings and raise red flags. When I meet analysts who tell me “this is a disaster waiting happen” and managers who say “if anyone outside this building knew how shoddy this process is, we’d be done for,” I cringe.

Healthcare Crisis

Let me give you an example. At a recent community healthcare meeting, healthcare leaders were reflecting upon the fact that most citizens believe their doctors and hospitals have access to their medical records across organizational boundaries. The fact is, with the exception of 0.1% of the population, that’s not true. Fragmented health information and barriers between healthcare partners that prohibit exchange are at the root of America’s healthcare quality chasm. Sadly, the public has no idea. As a result, healthcare is a dangerous pursuit for all of us. The risks are great. Hospitals are full of quality and patient-safety landmines. Rather than allowing public misunderstanding to persist, we should be honest and get to work more openly. I think people would be willing to support initiatives to develop workflow and processes that lead to integrated healthcare information if they only knew how badly disjointed systems are today. When these projects are limited to technology and systems staff, we’re luck to crawl across the finish line. These are NOT technology projects.

A Good Reason for Funding

Workflow and process design are not free and they’re not cheap. Business leaders looking for a cost-benefit analysis and ROI ought only look as far as FEMA and the meat processor this week to know that weaknesses, issues and risks must be mitigated. Planning and prioritizing that doesn’t resolve blatant risks – risks brought vividly to graphic life in a simple workflow diagram and in basic performance measures – can shut company doors overnight. Without warning, poor construction, manufacturing, HR, hygiene and customer service risks can cause instant implosion.

In some cases, folks, there may not be enough warning to suddenly prioritize an issue and launch a project. Think way ahead and allocate resources carefully.

Competition and Cost of Quality

When I beat this drum, business leaders tell me they cannot fund quality improvement initiatives because their competition doesn’t do it. If they were first, their prices wouldn’t be competitive. I say, make higher prices for quality products a competitive advantage. Sell your product on the basis of its quality. The recent troubles faced by Chinese toy manufacturers may bear out the wisdom of this approach. Suddenly, toys from China aren’t expected to be so cheap anymore. And remember, the next time you think cheap is competitive, the top-selling Christmas gift in 2007 was a $300 video game. People buy quality.


2 responses to “Workflow & BPM for the Sake of Crisis Management and Business Continuity

  1. Pingback: Workflow & BPM for the Sake of Crisis Management and Business Continuity

  2. Hi, Patrick.

    You raised a lot of great points.
    In the book on Office Lean that I read this evening, the authors made a few points that are relevant to the issues you raised here.

    1. leaders, management, and employees all need to work together in order to initiate a quality-improvement project.

    Management probably approved or condoned the workflows that endanger customer lives. Education in quality procedures might not be sufficient to produce change if management is not behind it.

    2. lean projects initiate change in the direction: behavior -> attitude -> culture.

    Changes in workflow that serve to improve quality are more valuable than changes in culture that make customer safety more important or valuable. With myself when I eat, I’ll eat an unhealthy meal when I don’t have to, simply because I’m disorganized about putting a meal together in that situation. I’m very health-conscious, and in general eat healthy, so its not a deficiency of culture or attitude for me.

    3. cost and profit are control variables while price is an environment variable.

    These days, price is set by the economic and competitive environment. Selling pricier goods on the basis of higher quality is less appealing than selling competitive goods with higher profit margins.

    4. Competing organizations provide value streams for your organization to develop whenever their products take your customers away from you.

    Workflow improvements are valuable but the processes themselves must change to meet competition, regardless of the quality of your product. Customer demand determines your workflows.

    FEMA makes an interesting exception to the “customer demand determines your workflows” rule because FEMA has no competition. However, that also makes FEMA an exception to the “processes must change to meet competition, regardless of the quality of your product”. FEMA can provide a high-quality product to its customers free from the constraints of having to cut costs to increase profit, and having to change products to meet customer preferences. Unfortunately, since FEMA outsources, the competition, cost, and customer issues that its contractors have are passed onto FEMA’s customers, who, guess what, have no one else to turn to! Hell of a time for profit-motivated contractors to cut costs and ignore quality!


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