Business Process Reengineering (BPR) was all the rage during the 1990’s, with Fortune 500 companies falling over themselves to re-engineer their enterprises, but for many BPR was synonymous with lay-offs and failure. Driven by inhuman, analytical, engineering thinking, BPR sought to break the mold of process improvement with radical thinking that espoused questioning everything.

Don’t automate, obliterate!

A fundamental axiom was to question the very existence of a process, with non-value added processes deserving no place within the operation. Automation for the sake of automation was a crime, as if the process was non-value adding, simply automating it meant non-value was still input into the system. This was lazy managerial thinking that relied on IT to get everything done faster and cheaper.

Ignoring people, and adopting a ‘slash and burn’ attitude to business management which made Rambo look timid, led to the rapid demise of BPR as failure piled upon failure.

So why is business process re-engineering making a comeback?

Well for a start, the business landscape is much more dynamic than it was 20 years ago, making it much more important and vital for larger companies to become nimble and agile as they react to threats and opportunities.

Here’s one example of how business environment has changed in 20 years – 20 years ago, no-one had heard of Google!

The technology capability has also changed too, which is a double-edged sword for any enterprise. On the one hand new advances threaten to make their existing business model obsolete at any time (just ask any competitor of Uber or look at Tesla); on the other hand, new technology also offers the opportunity to do things faster, better and more profitably.

Carpe Diem, Carpe Noctum, Carpe Omnis – seize everything!

So, should BPR be used and if so, under what circumstances?

Here are my thoughts:

Is there a real need?
Business process reengineering must be necessary before it is implemented. Many BPR initiatives failed in the Nineties because they were simply unnecessary, and led to a great deal of waste, inefficiencies and wholesale fear amongst the workforce.

BPR also requires a significant investment, so the potential gains must be worth not only the cultural pain, but also the financial cost.

Businesses should severely question why they need to reengineer.

Do they really need to adapt to avoid failure?
Yes, of course they do, but an incremental rate of adaptation can serve just as well as a fundamental paradigm shift, and change for the sake of change is not innovation.

Most importantly, will the needs of the company’s customers be better served by the post-BPR changes?

That’s a tough question to answer, but it is almost a guarantee that if reengineering is being conducted to cut costs (i.e. through layoffs) then it will fail.

Planning Requirements
A root cause of failure amongst many BPR projects in the past has been poor planning. Planning is as necessary to BPR as air is to you and I – BPR will not work without adequate planning and preparation.

Existing processes must be analyzed and measured rigorously. Proposed changes must be carefully thought out and implemented. Staff communications are paramount, and how will this be done – especially when you have a very anxious workforce?

Leadership needs to be strong, understanding and provide clear and definitive direction on how change will be effected, and the impact of this change on the business, on its people, customers and culture.
Training will be required too, otherwise staff adoption of new methods and operations will impact the opportunity for success.

Is your IT Department Up to the Job?
Your IT department are going to be very central to any BPR initiative, especially when you are streamlining existing processes and looking to improve efficiency. IT are the gatekeepers for the key reports you will be relying on with your decision making, however, a frequent cause of BPR failure has been with inappropriate selection of tools and methodologies.

When you are looking at the selection of appropriate tools, and very importantly, how they will be implemented, it is essential you have the right expertise available either in-house (fairly rare in practice) or available to be brought in to execute successfully (and that dramatically increases costs – see my initial thought).

Also, new IT tools are only going to provide appositive outcome if they are adopted and used effectively (and that brings us to my second thought on training and communication).

Carving out Business Process Reengineering Success
Careful benchmarking and measurement, rigorous planning and successful implementation of IT tools all contribute to the success or failure of reengineering initiatives. A successful BPR project will demand excellent leadership, outstanding communication and the ability to motivate and manage staff. In other words, just what we would expect from good leadership, however, leadership will also be managing radical change created by BPR, which will also fuel the need to adapt and amend expectations.

Business Process Reengineering is not for the faint of heart, but we’re probably going to see more and more of BPR as our business landscape continues to experience accelerating change.

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