Business Process Re-engineering, A Business’s Quick Weight Loss

If there is one thing that this world is not short of, its quick weight loss plans. We are flooded with pictures and video of hard bodied individuals with before and after scenarios. If you can just follow this one plan through, you too can loose 50 pounds and 19 inches across your whole body. (Disclaimer: Results not typical (or possible)). Even with the disclaimers, these programs sell to thousands of people. Yet, the world is getting fatter. In 2011, the “skinniest state” rose .7% in overall fat. [1] In 2011, only two states had negative obesity rates! [1] Weight loss and business have the same thing in common, they are both products of their inputs versus their outputs. For weight loss, its calories, for business, its currency.

If you’re wondering what all this has to do with business, hang on while I finish my snack and diet soda.

Looking first to the world’s most trusted and accurate source of information, I looked at Wikipedia to see what some of the business fads have been. According to their article, the following are in order of apperance from 1950 – 1990: [2]

    Management by objectives
    Matrix management
    Theory Z
    One-minute management
    Management by wandering around
    Total quality management
    Business process reengineering
    360-degree feedback

There are some other honorable mentions, but the list above is quite comprehensive for the business fad diet. Lets look into one of the current ones that is re-appearing, re-engineering/business process reengineering.

The 1993 book, Reengineering the Corporation, was a smashing success selling 1.7 million copies in less than 2 years. [3] With the fad in full swing many companies were signing on to reengineer. Business Process Reengineering (BPR) was placed to be the next big business thing. Hammer took what he already saw existing businesses doing and created a business movement out of. One of the best and most attractive parts of the management fads is that they often mask complacency. If organizations constantly improved and innovated each day, there would likely be no need for massive BPR projects. BPR is the perfect fix for complacent managers. Early on in Hammers book, he states “You don’t reengineer unless you have to”. [3 p. 12]

No diet plan is successful without a spokesperson convincing you that you’re fat and need to do something about at. Hammer came out early and often in 1993 and 1994 with interviews stating provocative things like “It’s basically taking an axe and a machine gun to your existing organization.”[4] Many other non business violent phrases got people thinking about the idea.

Most binge dieters crash and go back to their old ways like many companies do. Paul Strassman pointed this out in a scathing 1994 article about BPR. “Hammer’s simple methods, much swifter than BPI’s more deliberate approach, are preferred by the impatient and those not compelled to cope with the long-term consequences of what happens to the quality and the dedication of the work force.” [4] Strassman fears that BPR will alienate the workforce that doesn’t get cut by the results of the reengineering. He likens it to a democracy turned dictatorship. Ripping teams apart has this effect.

One of the tenents of BPR is assigning employees to a BPR team. Those employees are tasked for several months to a few years to completely re-work a process and make it significantly better. Hammer makes the point in his book that members of the BPR team should not expect to go back to their orignial departments after the BPR process is completed. [3 p. 62] Any manager that knows the employee they are giving up is not going to come back to their team is very unlikely to give up their best employee(s). The manager would be better suited to give up their lesser employees as they need valuable people to get the current work done. Holding back the best employees would not help a BPR effort, yet its expected that managers would willingly give them up. In this instance, incremental improvement would seem a better choice for keeping valuable employees and getting more work done.

If companies don’t want to give up their best employees for reengineering, they they will have to go to consultants to get their work done. Hammer points out that general consulting firms often don’t put their best and brightest employees on reengineering assignments. [3 p. 71] This leaves companies with lesser consultants that still cost top dollar. If the process does succeed, there is a risk that the new process is only understood by consultants and not by an organization’s core employees.

Finally, like all diet plans, they come with a disclaimer. Hammer addresses the top 10 mistakes that are made during BPR. During the chapter about mistakes, he creates a disclaimer stating that it can only fail if you don’t do it right. “The results depend entirely on the quality, intensity, and intelligence of the effort”. [3 p. 14-15] So when my BPR project doesn’t live up to what it should have been, its my fault. More importantly, why did I let my business get this bad in the first place. Businesses like diets are a daily affair. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll have picked up 10 pounds around the holidays and have to deal with the results!

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[3] – The Reengineering Revolution, Michael Hammer and Steven A. Stanton
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