BPM Requires Will and Leadership: Part 1- The Problem

I am writing on board a plane sitting on the tarmac in Denver. I could write a book called “Sitting on the Tarmac in Denver”. On my way East, I was delayed in Denver. On my way back West, I am delayed in Denver. What do the two delays have in common besides Denver? United Airlines. Why is this pertinent to a blog about business process? Failure to learn from the mistakes of our biggest industries dooms our small and mid-sized imitators in the same and other sectors to the same results.

BPM is a practice, discipline and set of tools that will either enhance your organizational health or reinforce your organizational disease. Making mistakes more efficiently is not noble. Automating poor quality is not a virtue.

Assessing your organization’s culture and management mind-set is fundamentally important to the consideration and effect of BPM.

Airlines, with few exceptions, are operating as though it were 1950. Airports are terribly conceived, fleets of planes are aging, personnel are out of touch, their hands tied by draconian policies, and business models are tragically flawed for the 21st century.

The Wall Street Journal has an article on the front page today (March 10, 2009) illustrating the state of the airline industry around the world. The US market is clearly suffering. However, any company that fails to fuel a plane, leaving it and its passengers (their customers) to sit on the tarmac for an extra 90 minutes deserves the terrible financial performance it is encountering. I may sound alarmist and overly cynical but I cannot find much good to say about the industry other than the good I find among its innovators. From a business standpoint, the air travel sector is presently rotten to its core and companies like Southwest and Virgin are scrambling to escape the pull of that core by innovating their way out. I sincerely hope they can outrun (out-fly?) the bloated dinosaurs who share the skies with them. Those who are unwilling to move beyond the drag of 9/11 and fuel prices. Those who cannot stir the imagination and desire of their customers.

The process-oriented problems I have encountered today have included: a plane that couldn’t get to its gate due to another blocking its way while it waited for a paper printout (30 minutes); a gate change of 25 gates’ distance (once I managed to get in the airport) 10 minutes prior to boarding; and a plane that sat unnoticed “all morning” without fuel and – once full of passengers – had to wait an additional 90 minutes for fuel. I also witnessed a flight attendant treat a Spanish-speaking customer in the most condescending manner imaginable. She should have been fired on the spot.

This is in contrast to the personable service I got from Yellow Cab in Kansas City (thanks Mohamed and the kind lady on the other end of the phone who took care of me at 1:00am) and the delightful – make that incredible – service I received in the Embassy Suites hotel in Kansas City at 1:30am (why so late? Ask United Airlines and the Denver airport).

I believe firmly that “necessity is the mother of invention” and some people understand that while others do not. Anyone watching the news knows that we are in the midst of an economic crisis of galactic proportions. How could anyone accept sub-par performance from themselves and their peers while all of this is unfolding? I am stupefied. Several questions plague me (and all of them have BPM implications):

  • What prevents a company or an organization of any stripe from understanding something as basic as their survival?
  • How can a company become so oblivious and self-centered as to NOT notice they are going down the drain (especially those who have gobs of performance data)?
  • Do they notice and just fail to act?
  • Is greed the only explanation? I don’t think so.
  • Is it stupidity? I don’t think it’s that either.
  • What would you have to have on your mind – consuming you, distracting you and deluding you – in order to fail in every aspect of critical change management or innovation?
  • What kind of dynamics have to be in place in order for complacency to set in for decades, retarding giant organizations to the extent that they can no longer be viable business interests?
  • Does it all boil down to consumer confidence, sentiment and lay-offs? I don’t buy that. This industry has been in trouble for a long time.
  • How can some organizations provide such obvious examples of innovation, profitability and customer service – in such plain sight to facilitate emulation – while others remain ignorant or thoroughly resistant to change?

I am picking on United today but it could just as easily be the banks who have taken us “over the cliff” with them, the US automakers who resisted change for 30 years (remember, the first energy crisis was in the early 1970s), and the health maintenance organizations (HMOs) who are now panicking because the President is locking up their Medicare cash-cow. The same can be said of our school systems and our healthcare institutions.


Decades of stagnant management and something akin to the “collective unconscious” are wreaking havoc on us. While white-collar criminals are running our brightest and most successful companies and institutions into the ground, their shareholders, board members, suppliers, partners, employees and customers are all gleefully applauding the nose-dive, complicit in the disaster about to drop on to our own heads.

Perhaps this is the painful death of the old and the excruciating birth of the new. I hope so. I pray we’ve hit bottom. Watching the likes of Bank of America and AIG burn through billions is a lot like watching a heroin addict shoot up until he “hits bottom”.  Are we all part of the problem?


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