Automating Suboptimal Processes

It’s not possible to solve business problems without affecting processes. Whether the goal is to comply with new legislation, develop a new product, or adopt changes in accounting practices, business processes will change. Understanding processes is mandatory; changes to business processes are inevitable.

Sometimes, the official goal of a project will be stated as “automating a process.” The target process can be fairly manual, or a combination of subflows supported by different applications.

The default approach I encounter fairly regularly is:

  1. Document current process
  2. Replicate it on the new brilliant chosen technology platform.

A business analyst will work painstakingly with business subject matter experts on capturing every step, every activity, every branch of the existing flow in all their intricate complexity. They will replicate the results on wall-size swimlane diagrams that will reflect the current process with impressive detail.

Nobody will ever know how accurate the wallpaper process flow was. No one person (or perhaps just one person in the whole company) will know the whole picture and will be detail-oriented enough and driven enough to go through the whole diagram and not get lost.

The swimlane will be walked through, tweaked, and approved.

The team of reviewers will mostly agree with the diagram and confirm that this is indeed an accurate representation of the current process. Or as accurate as they can see without a magnifying glass.

Then they will automate it.

At least they will try to. Designing a flow matching the current process exactly may prove challenging on the new shiny platform.

Strange things will be discovered. Steps will be missing from the “current state.” The data expected by certain activities will not be there.

Certain branches and subflows will require clarification. There will be fuzzy logic and unexplained alternatives on the swimlane diagram. Loose ends will be discovered. Attempts to tweak the diagram will instead uncover more gaps.

When the analyst is called back to find answers to new questions, they may end up talking to different people than before, during the “requirements gathering.”

They may discover that two people with the same job title execute the same steps differently – and each will appear to have a valid reason.

While the clarification process drags on, people in the business group may move around, and a new business lead may show up at the next project meeting. This new expert may turn out to have a very different view of what the process is, or what it should be. It is not rare to have a project turn around completely after a new “requirements approver” steps into the role.

Dear Business Analyst:

Automating current processes rarely works because they deteriorate with time.

Unless a process is rigorously monitored and assessed for efficiency, it gets overgrown with “process fluff.” Redundant steps and arbitrary approvals are added, additional loops are introduced to manage a political situation. Temporary workarounds are created and became permanent once no one remembers why a workaround was needed in the first place. Subtle changes are added when the process ownership changes. Additional outputs are included for special clients. A step routinely gets skipped because of the problems it creates.

While in theory, the process is expected to be like this:

But in practice, it may be like this:

Automating the existing business process without assessing and optimizing it first is a waste of money and resources. When a suboptimal process is baked into the software, it becomes the new inefficient normal.


A business analyst’s role is to bring the inefficiency to light and recommend process improvements. Use your business analyst mindsetthink of business goals. To make business more efficient, we must reduce waste, including process and operational waste.

Use diplomacy and your power of influence. Persuade the stakeholders to acknowledge and address process deficiencies, bottlenecks, and unnecessary complexity. Bring it up with the right stakeholders. Use business analysis techniques and artifacts to make your case.

Select one of many well-developed business process improvement techniques, or offer to facilitate a business process reengineering workshop. Ask whether your organization has any Six Sigma experts and ask for their help. Above all, uncover gaps – do not cover them up.

And remember:

“Automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency… Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” – Bill Gates

Please share your thoughts!

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