Part 1 – What are Processes?

What are processes and what are we missing with current process analysis techniques?

This part revisits the basic idea of processes and how they emerge in the real world. We then discuss the link between having the right kinds of models and data and the ability to improve processes. We then shed a light at what phenomena our current data formats, notations, and techniques for recording, modeling and analyzing processes do not capture naturally. This gives us the roadmap for this course.

Exercise: find processes in the real world

Think of this online course as a textbook. The exercises are for you to engage with the topics of the course. Most of the exercises are reflection exercises, they do not have a pre-defined answer.

Take a notebook (paper or digital) and brainstorm about a number of real-life processes you are encountering in the real world. Think of the following contexts:

  • At home – when you are getting up and ready for the day and when you are coming back
  • When you are commuting to work, school
  • Having a week off? Planning a trip or a nice activity?
  • When you are studying, learning for a particular exam or your entire degree program
  • At work: your meetings, your projects, …

Find at least one process for each context. Write it down and write down

  • Why are you doing this? What is the intended outcome?
  • Which actors are involved and needed to make the process run?
  • Which objects are needed to run the process? How many? How are they related?
  • Where do you have to wait to continue the process? Why?

Notice that the questions above do not include “What are the steps?” While the steps in a process are important, this course is about focusing on all the other things.

Keep this list of processes at hand for the rest of course. You will revisit it repeatedly.

How do processes differ?

Process thinking structures the flow of information and material between various actors and resources in terms of processes: several coherent steps designed to achieve common and individual goals together. A process is the result of multiple actors, resources, physical objects and information entities interact and synchronize with each other.

Almost all processes are the result of such a complex interplay – but we often limit the way we think about a process to just a subset. Often, to focus on specific problems. However, applying a limited scope on a more complex process may make us miss important aspects.

Our scope of process thinking varies depending on “how much dynamics” we consider. A most basic classification covers the following questions:

  • “How many entities describe a dynamic?” – the inner scope of process thinking.
  • “How many dynamics to consider?” – the outer scope of process thinking.

The most basic answers to each are “one” and “multiple”, giving rise to the four quadrants of multi-dimensional process thinking shown below.

Dimensions of Process Thinking

Focusing on Process Executions

Processes are primarily studied through the dynamics of their executions. Thereby each execution is understood as a single dynamic, i.e., a separate object of study.

One Execution – Single Entity. Standard industrial process modeling languages, such as BPMN, and classical process mining focus primarily on describing and analyzing information handling dynamics as they are found in many administrative procedures, for instance in insurance companies or universities.

From this angle, each process is scoped in terms of individual cases or individual documents, e.g., a student application or an insurance claim. The information in a case is processed independently of other cases along a single process description, often in a workflow system. In terms of the above figure, process thinking here encompass a single-dimensional inner scope (information flow within a case) structured into a single-dimensional outer scope (study flow per case).

One Execution – Multiple Entities. Most organizations, for example in manufacturing and retail, operate multiple processes over shared data and materials, such as Order-to-Cash or Purchase-to-Pay processes. These processes are often supported by complex systems such as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems.

Processes here are centered around updating and managing a collection of related documents. Process thinking in this scenario requires to consider the interlinked dynamics of multiple processes and objects together (multi-dimensional inner scope) – with the aim of reasoning about each specific dynamic, i.e., one customer order, individually (single-dimensional outer scope).

Taking the System and Organization into the Picture

The dynamics of each case relies on the system that moves it forward, for example, the actors and machines doing the actual work. There are more dynamics to consider:

  • How does the involvement of actors and machines influence the dynamics of a case, e.g., by their availability, workload, and capabilities?
  • How do changes to physical properties of materials and machines involved in the process influence the dynamics of a case?
  • How do the underlying systems influence the dynamics, for instance through queueing, prioritizing, assigning of work, or (reliability of) automation of steps?

However, the availability of actors, materials, and systems, in turn, is influenced by the amount, nature, and progress of all cases. Studying these interdependencies requires to consider all cases in the process together (and not in isolation).

Multiple Executions – One Entity. Processes for manufacturing and logistics, such as baggage handling at airports combine information handling with material flows.

Each individual physical item (a bag) is processed along a logical process flow (single-dimensional inner scope); all bags move within a shared physical environment of conveyor belts, carts, machines, and workers. The processing of one material item depends not only on the logical process but also on all other items that surround it: all cases together define whether work accumulates at a particular machine, work cannot be completed at the desired quality, or target deadlines are not met (multi-dimensional outer scope). These dynamics also arise in call centers and hospitals; they cannot be observed, analyzed, and improved when studying each case in isolation.

Multiple Executions – Multiple Entities. More advanced logistics operations, such as warehouse automation and manufacturing systems, also consider material flows that are being merged together, through batch processing and manufacturing steps.

Analyzing and improving processes in such systems requires both a multi-dimensional inner scope and a multi-dimensional outer scope of process thinking.

Exercise: analysis questions for your processes

Take the list of processes you made above and find for each process (at least) one process analysis or process improvement question. Write it down.

Exercise: classify your processes in the 4 quadrants of multi-dimensional process thinking

Take the list of processes and the analysis questions you made above and decide for each process and question in which quadrant of multi-dimensional process thinking it belongs.

Can you find for the same process multiple analysis questions that place the process in two different quadrants?

If you find it hard to answer this questions, revisit this exercise every time you finished one of the later parts.

Enjoy the rest of the course.

< Online Course: Multi-Dimensional Process AnalysisPart 2 – Performance Spectrum >

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