You know what the problem is with your lean initiative? You’re not doing any process mining. 

Yup, that’s right. You’re missing the boat on “process mining,” the latest improvement breakthrough that will catapult your firm to the top of your industry. According to a new HBR article, process mining will “revitalize process management in firms where it has lain fallow for years.” 

The authors state that companies adopting business process reengineering are so focused on the future state that they ignore a thorough analysis of the current state. Conversely, companies that adopt an incremental improvement approach

tend to spend too much time on analyzing the “as-is.” In addition, their current process analysis is frequently based on interviews and sticky notes, which executives sometimes regard as overly subjective and treat with justifiable skepticism.

I hardly know what to say about this argument. How do you define “too much time”? If you don’t know where you are and what’s actually happening, how do you know what to change? What kind of current state analysis only has interviews with no observational data? And are executives really skeptical of sticky notes? I could be wrong—I’ve never shown a hand-drawn process map to the CEO of a Fortune 10 company. Maybe executives at that pay scale really do have an issue with sticky notes. But you could always transfer the notes to Visio or Smartsheet or iGrafx if your CEO is allergic to Post-Its.  

Fortunately, now there’s a host of companies providing process mining software that will eliminate all these problems and set you on a smooth glide path to success. The software captures information and transactions as they flow through the company, and makes visible how long that (computer-mediated) work takes. 

For example, the global chemical company Chermours used process mining to analyze their order-to-cash process:

It took the process mining effort four months to uncover how the actual process was performing (not just what the ERP documentation stated). It made the entire process visible and revealed some glaring issues. Credit holds was one such issue, as process mining exposed that strategic customers were sometimes placed on credit hold needlessly to enable manual steps in the O2C process.

Look, I know that Chermours is a large company—4000 customers in 130 countries. But still. It took four months and an expensive piece of software to find out that strategic customers were needlessly placed on credit hold occasionally??? They couldn’t have figured that out in two days by going to the gemba, watching the process, and actually, you know, talking to the employees in the credit department? I’ll bet you dinner that when the CIO and CFO announced this Copernican insight to the company, there were a bunch of $20/hour front-line workers doing a facepalm.

Another great sales point for the software—the opportunity to anoint a class of high priests with specialized knowledge who take responsibility for improvement. At ABB, 

A small group coordinates the process mining effort in the head office, and as much as 80% of the process mining work is done by Quality & Operations personnel at the business unit level as part of ABB’s continuous improvement program.

Gee, that sounds terrific. Place responsibility for improvement in the hands of a few people who have the special skills and training to operate the software, and let them fix the problems. Leaving aside the fact that you’re ignoring the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the front line employees, you’re setting yourself up for an improvement bottleneck and a nice long queue when the high priests of process mining can’t work with you for another six months. Continuous improvement? Discontinuous improvement is more like it. 

And finally, one last benefit of process mining: 

Process mining also contributes to reducing non-value-add activities and eliminating manual reporting efforts.

I have no doubt that it does make work more efficient. And so does close observation of the work with standard work combination tables. But that would only cost about three cents per page, which isn’t nearly as exciting as investing in a giant piece of expensive technology.

Look—I’m sure that sophisticated software can play an important role in process improvement, especially when you’re dealing with highly complex processes. But relying on software at the expense of direct observation is insane. 

I spent two days watching the warranty process at one of my clients. I saw how one person was slower than another because at 5’0” tall, she couldn’t reach the shipping boxes where they were stored, and she couldn’t access the database at the same time as the warranty lead. I’m sure that process mining software would have revealed precisely how much slower she was than her colleagues, but that would have completely missed the point.

Go see. Ask why. Show respect. Before you start mining. 

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