Process Discovery: Whiteboards are cool but is there a tool?

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Running a successful process discovery workshop is a dark art, it’s not everyone’s cup of coffee. It requires an ability to grasp concepts quickly, patience and most importantly a strong will – to keep at the participants on track. It’s not just a matter of standing in front of a whiteboard and drawing some pretty shapes with lines between them you need to control the flow of information, separating the important stuff from the not so important stuff and keep everyone actively engaged for often days at a time. One of the hardest things to control is the level of detail and it takes a certain tact to delicately move the group on when the workshops descends into a discussion over whether Bill or Jane currently approve a particular activity or whether the average cycle time for the approval process is one hour or one hour and five mins.

In my experience, a whiteboard, non-permanent markers and a wad of sticky notes works just fine but you need a room with lots of blank walls, a good swivel chair and a rubber neck. There are now stacks of software programs about that claim they can assist you in workshop world but I’m still yet to see one that does everything I want it to, albeit they are getting close.
So, in order of preference (perhaps controversially,) what are the key things I believe a tool needs to support:

  1. Flexible data capture – quite simply I want to be able to capture data at every level: organisation, process, activity and task. Preferably, I’d like to be able to configure the types of data I can capture and not be constrained by predefined fields.
  2. Process modelling – obviously you need modelling support and I don’t think there will be a tool out there that doesn’t allow you to draw pictures. However, just providing support for modelling is not enough. Ideally you want a tool that supports the standard notations in this space: Business Process Management Notation (BPMN) and Event-drive Process Chains (EPC). The usability of the tool is absolutely critical, the last the you want during a workshop is to be messing around trying to join two activities together – participants will quickly switch off if more time in spent in the tool than facilitating the workshop.
  3. Documentation – by documentation I mean more than just a PDF with pictures. Ideally, the tool will be able to generate a PDF that outputs diagrams nested amongst all the data you have captured and potentially the output from any simulation.
  4. Process landscaping –the level above processes. Ideally, you would be able to model the process landscape as a hierarchy showing where in the organisation processes reside and how processes are divided into sub-processes
  5. Simulation – I appreciate I’m potentially stepping into process design with this one but at the point we start mapping the processes in detail I’d like to be able to simulate the process based on what I have captured. This doesn’t need to be a bells and whistles simulation I just want to be able to quickly assess where the possible bottlenecks are and start getting a feel for the costs and cycle times for each step.
  6. White boarding – in my opinion it’s not a good idea to start modelling the process too early. Initially, you just want to be able to capture the key steps in a process and the key activities that reside within each of those steps. Sequence is also important but your best to focus on the happy path only and park the exceptions for a later iteration. To support this approach you need a tool that allows you to capture steps and activities in an unstructured manner, as you would on a whiteboard.
  7. Web browser support – ideally the whole tool would be browser based but at a minimum I’d be happy if the tool just supported the ability to publish a project in a HTML form so that it is viewable in a browser.

So what are your priorities and what’s out there? I think it’s fair to say that no one tool does it all. So, if there isn’t one tool then ideally I liked seamless transition from one tool to the next, with limited data loss and minimal effort.

2 thoughts on “Process Discovery: Whiteboards are cool but is there a tool?

    Geoff Bullen said:
    October 15, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Interesting post.

    Do you think that in some situations a tool could get in the way? By acting as a barrier to collaboration perhaps.

    Alex Bullen said:
    October 15, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Interesting post. Kind of related to Geoff's comment above, I think that the use of the whiteboard in a brainstorming environment is one to reflect on and should maybe be an emphasis.

    Producing a process map as part of the discovery workshops is often not productive – especially as most business SME's that I have come across don't have much exposure to the notations, or simply don't get it. The 'whiteboard' capability of some of the tools is the promised solution to this – although maybe using manual cards might have some of the same behaviours as in Marcin's post The Centrum Blog: Sometimes paper is just better.

    The use of collaborative tools, which are being touted as the next big thing may also experience similar challenges to producing the right result. The business SME's are typically expert at operating their processes, and not on BPA or the use of tools.

    Some interesting times ahead. Maybe social / collaborative BPM is nirvana, but it needs to be able to be intuitive to the SME's / operators and not just process analysts 🙂

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