Sunday, May 17, 2009

An existential approach to process optimization

This week I had a meeting with a client that, for a moment, took me back to my college days and the intense, alcohol induced philosophical debates my fellow students and I used to get drawn into. The debates often involved trees in forests, fish, bread and bicycles etc. Jean Paul Satre’s ‘The Age of Reason’ and Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ both came flooding back.

I was in a meeting with a senior manager whose team had the responsibility for designing KPI’s for measuring the effectiveness of business processes. At one point I ignorantly suggested that to design an efficient process it is best to separate technology from the process itself. I suggested that no matter whether we are in SAP, Cognos, BO, or any other system for processing and/or reporting, we simply need to get back to the essence of the transaction itself. It was at that precise moment that my client interrupted me by saying:

“Harley, I have been studying this exact theory for the last 13 years and no matter how I approach it, I realize that what you are saying is impossible. Try imagining even the simplest of processes without the use of tools. For example, imagine how to design the process of getting from your home to your office without any tools or technology – you can not, it’s just not possible. So we are obliged to accept that tools are an intrinsic part of the process its self, there is no other way of approaching it”.

I considered what he said for a while then told him a true story:

I was once working in China, my client was in the closing stages of building a giant chemical production plant which was situated two and a half kilometers away from the regional head office. The problem was that twice per day a massive amount of data needed to be transferred between the plant’s production systems and the servers located in the regional head office. By coincidence, I had joined a technical meeting addressing the problem, at the point where everyone present had seemingly exhausted all the options. I was told that: ‘Laying a dedicated cable meant tunneling under our competitors factory. Going around it was way too expensive and the cable would then be subject to damage from road building schemes and other forms of maintenance. Using satellite or 3G technology would be too unreliable and would cost the earth.’

The participants were close to panicking – the new plant had cost millions of dollars and was only a few weeks from going on line. It was then I noticed a Chinese construction worker cycling past on his bicycle – “Why can’t you do it manually”? , I asked. “Why not simply download the data onto an external hard drive and have someone cycle with it to office”? The room fell silent. “Are you kidding?” someone asked. “No, I am deadly serious! Give me one good reason as to why it might not work? Give me a simpler, better idea if you have one. If you are worried about risk, download the data onto two hard drives and have two cyclists, one in reserve – just in case”.

As far as I know, to this day the bicycle method is still being used!

Of course – this process, just like any other, uses a tool so my client is correct – but it is not the kind of tool that technologist naturally consider – why? Because, it’s too simple, too embarrassing to admit to one’s colleagues. Me, I don’t care. I am not an engineer. I am just a pragmatic manager that dislikes endless discussions and simply likes to get on with the job in hand. (Except when I have had a few too many units of alcohol and I am in the presence similarly intoxicated philosophers)…

No comments: