How should I describe, modify, and measure an organizational process?
December 18, 2009 9:58 AM   Subscribe

What resources can I read to understand topics like scientific management, organisational workflows, and other ways of describing and monitoring processes made up of actors communicating amongst themselves to produce an end product?

My current project involves describing, modifying, and measuring processes (at a low level) by which (knowledge) workers perform heterogeneous tasks to produce some end product. In particular, two aspects I am interested in are the ways in which intermediate results/products move between workers and how the workers communicate (e.g., Bob paints a smile on the action figure, Joe determines if the action figure has any defects, if there are defects, he returns it to Joe). Unfortunately, this is such a general description, and the problem itself is so multi-disciplinary, that I am having difficulty finding what I want.

So far, I've found:
  • Scientific Management: There is a variety of "management science" type work which stems from work by Taylor which coincided with assembly lines which attempts to measure and describe assembly lines and similar processes. However: (1) I haven't been able to find a good summary of this work at a survey level and (2) most of this work seems to be focused on physical assembly lines and quality assurance of physical products, whereas my processes are knowledge processes.
  • Oracle Workflow (and similar): Various software products seem to allow the user to graphically map out a "workflow," though I'm not sure what academic or organisational theory is used in these cases.
  • Coordination Science: Work by, for example, Prof. Malone at MIT seems to look at attempting to catalogue business processes, but what I was able to find seemed too specific (and a little dense).
Less specifically, I've gotten suggestions that operations researchers and political economists probably have a bunch of work on this as well.

In any case, I would love to get any names of topics/products that might be relevant or surveys/(text)books of particular areas' approaches to this problem. I am especially interested in approaches that use some sort of formal description language like a graph or a programming language or otherwise and approaches that apply to or are designed for workers who might be remote or communicate only electronically.
posted by pbh to Human Relations (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Some other terms to check out:
- Operations management
- Business process reengineering

"Prof. Malone at MIT seems to look at attempting to catalogue business processes, but what I was able to find seemed too specific (and a little dense)."

Professors are generally pretty helpful folk. If you find a paper or book that seems close to what you want but not quite it, look up the professor's email address on his/her university's website and email him/her your question(s) or request for recommendations of more layperson-friendly work. Personally, I've found that even relatively famous (and thus presumably busy professors) will almost always reply to emails inquiring about their research interests.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:09 AM on December 18, 2009


Other terms:

- Cybernetics
- Double-loop learning
- Systems theory
- Complex adaptive systems
posted by Roach at 10:15 AM on December 18, 2009


"designed for workers who might be remote or communicate only electronically."

Oh, and Microsoft SharePoint was pretty much designed for this sort of collaboration. SharePoint includes the concept of "workflows" to manage the production and revisions of various documents and projects. So you might find references in SharePoint manuals to what you're looking for.

"Project management" is another subject area to investigate.

"Lean manufacturing" training includes a section on "process mapping" which also sounds similar to what you want to do. (Process mapping in Lean involves getting everyone involved in a process together to document all the different steps they take, including all the various handoffs between different people and departments, to get work done. Putting it up on a big map often will quickly uncover redundancies, unnecessary work, general silliness, and other waste in the process.)
posted by Jacqueline at 10:15 AM on December 18, 2009


Also, if you can be more specific about what you're trying to do and in what context, I (and others) can probably give you even more useful pointers. Is this something you're studying for some sort of academic purpose, and thus need detailed citations and historical roots of various theories and all the evidence for and against them? Or a consulting project where you have to give a justification for your recommendations and/or studies showing previous successful implementation at other companies, but not the same depth as academic references? Or you're just trying to fix something at work and no one really cares where you get the ideas from as long as they work?
posted by Jacqueline at 10:20 AM on December 18, 2009


ARIS is another BPM (Business Process Management) tool. A lot of ad-hoc process documentation is done in Visio, often using swim lanes.

I suppose BPM notation and UML activity diagrams are a "formal description language."

Simulation software like Arena is traditionally used to model physical processes and prototype changes, but can apply to knowledge work as well.
posted by djb at 10:27 AM on December 18, 2009


Oh, to add on djb's comment, "swim lanes" is the term they used in the Lean manufacturing process mapping too.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:32 AM on December 18, 2009


Jacqueline: "Also, if you can be more specific about what you're trying to do and in what context, I (and others) can probably give you even more useful pointers. Is this something you're studying for some sort of academic purpose, and thus need detailed citations and historical roots of various theories and all the evidence for and against them? Or a consulting project where you have to give a justification for your recommendations and/or studies showing previous successful implementation at other companies, but not the same depth as academic references? Or you're just trying to fix something at work and no one really cares where you get the ideas from as long as they work?"

I'm actually building software whose goal is to allow an end user to specify an (arbitrary) workflow (or similar) and then get workers to implement that workflow and return the results. So I'm most interested in languages that might help an end user of my system describe the process they want accomplished and how they want it to get accomplished in a natural way. I happen to be in academia in engineering, so I'm somewhat biased towards academic work, but I won't need to "defend" my work through detailed citations (relevant citations to high level surveys of other areas would be great though). In short, where I get the ideas does not matter, so long as the approach works in an engineering sense, but I need to have a sufficiently general/formal approach such that it can describe many processes.

(Also, thanks for the great answers so far everyone...)
posted by pbh at 11:24 AM on December 18, 2009


Do you have use cases in mind? Are the end users business types expecting a drag-and-drop interface or are they comfortable learning a new syntax?

Does your institution have an IE/ISE department? Technical writers and helpdesk managers also have experience with collaborative knowledge management.
posted by djb at 11:48 AM on December 18, 2009


Although it works better with workflows in more concrete industries like manufacturing, Lean and Six Sigma (L6S) can be applied quite well to creative workflow processes.

Creative processes (like production and software development) are highly variable and have very low throughput, so L6S for creative means having to work with less concrete data. When one project takes weeks or months, it is hard to gather a statistically valid baseline of data, unlike for a factory which produces 10**x of product units per unit time.

But there are a lot of qualitative methods of process analysis in L6S that can significantly improve creative processes. Value Stream Mapping and value-add analysis are the most significant.

Essentially you don't target the creative process itself, but all the non-value-added stuff that burdens the process. I find it satisfying to attack an overhead-laden process with L6S and strip away unecessary lag times, signature cycles, meetings, and tests/reviews that make most creative type's lives more frustrating. A world-class process cycle efficiency for a creative process is just 25%. Most I've seen are around more like 5%. Which means that the vast majority of stuff in the pipeline is sitting on someone's desk waiting for approval, "in committee," etc.

It's nice to be able to clear some of that process waste away. Almost worth having to be called a "Black Belt." (Don't bother, I've heard all the jokes...)

Anyway, if you dont want to hire a Black Belt or take the plunge and get the training, get a book and at least plunder the tool set. It's really not that complicated. Basic statistics and some common sense are the only real prerequisites.
posted by cross_impact at 11:57 AM on December 18, 2009


djb: "Do you have use cases in mind? Are the end users business types expecting a drag-and-drop interface or are they comfortable learning a new syntax?

An example use case (but not one of the ones I'm specifically targeting) might be describing a customer support center for e-mail support for some company. You might imagine support e-mails come in, triage steps divide the e-mail into different buckets, different people answer different buckets or answer different parts of the e-mails, some get escalated, some (later) get quality checked to determine if employees are writing good support replies, and eventually a reply is sent out. I would like to be able to describe in a formal language or diagram what all of the people should be doing at different times in response to an incoming support e-mail, preferably in a way that a computer (rather than, say, a manager) could implement all the necessary communication. Then, I'd like to be able to start changing that structure to see if different process changes changed certain desired outcome variables (number of emails sent per hour, or happiness of the people supported).

For the moment, I'm assuming that the end users are programmers who are comfortable learning a new syntax. I'm actually not terribly concerned with extracting a description of a given process from a domain expert (which might require a simpler syntax or some sort of chart and seems to be the main focus of a lot of work) as opposed to giving a programmer the right tools to describe (more) "executable" processes in (more) detail. That said, I don't think I'm terribly likely to find a language which describes exactly what I want (which probably has a lot of overlap with what business types want anyway), and more likely to end up synthesising a number of different ideas from different approaches that were likely designed for "business types."

Does your institution have an IE/ISE department? Technical writers and helpdesk managers also have experience with collaborative knowledge management."

We have some management science/operations research type people who might fit the bill, but I haven't looked too deeply yet.
posted by pbh at 12:30 PM on December 18, 2009


"I'm actually building software whose goal is to allow an end user to specify an (arbitrary) workflow (or similar) and then get workers to implement that workflow and return the results."

How is this different than what SharePoint does?
posted by Jacqueline at 4:38 PM on December 18, 2009


Theory of constraints
posted by KokuRyu at 7:07 PM on December 18, 2009


How is this different than what SharePoint does?

It looks like SharePoint is an instance of what I'm looking to do. I guess I'm curious about what points in the design space things like Oracle and Microsoft's workflow tools represent. Are they basically petri nets with some hooks into proprietary solutions the companies are trying to sell? Or is there some sort of deeper organizational theory either surrounding the tools themselves or the products in general that I should be aware of? (For instance, I saw some processes by Malone which involved "inheritance" relationships in the style of object oriented programming, which I presume is another potential point in the design space.) Is there a theory of what is possible in these sorts of workflow systems?
posted by pbh at 11:03 PM on December 18, 2009


The Four Steps to the Epiphany and Customer Development.

The entire Startup Lessons Learned blog is very much worth attention. Unfortunately this is not a book; O'Reilly has resources by Eric Ries, the author of the blog: he is a great resource. As an academic in management discipline, I suspect you will find it enriching to step out of limits set by 'scientific management'.
posted by Jurate at 10:41 AM on December 19, 2009


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