The convergence of service-oriented architecture (SOA) and business process management (BPM) is taking process improvement to the next level, says Bruce Williams, the new vice president and general manager of process improvement at webMethods Inc.
Before SOA/BPM emerged, process improvement practitioners viewed IT as a "welded pyramid" and technologists scoffed at the Lean and Six Sigma methodologists who considered Visio state of the art. The relationship between the two was characterized mostly by resentment and organizations trying to implement either Toyota's Lean or Motorola's Six Sigma for process improvement suffered as a consequence, Williams said.
"I have been somewhere between amazed and frustrated over the last three or four years at the lack of integration between the methodologists and the technologists," recalled Williams, who until a few weeks ago ran a process improvement consultancy. "You can only do so much in process improvement if enterprise IT is not part of the equation. And they haven't been."
Until recently, the tools of the process improvement trade hadn't changed much in half a century, he said. "A lot of the things that anyone does to examine a process and improve it are very similar from a tools standpoint – not software tools, but applied tools – the way you analyze variants and calculate the capability of a process, a lot of that stuff's been around for 50 years."
Practitioners worked with those same statistical analysis tools plus modeling done in Visio or on napkins whether they were devotees of Six Sigma, Lean or good old Total Quality Management (TQM), Williams said. They were in some ways as old fashioned as pure mathematicians who still draw equations on blackboards. They only talked to IT when they needed data for their analysis and were stuck waiting in the old query and report queue. This tended to result in more us-versus-them resentment than anything resembling teamwork, he said.
But now all that is changing with the arrival of SOA and BPM.
"First, with SOA providing the right connectivity framework and now with the way BPM suites are coming together, suddenly the magic elixir is cooking up," Williams said. Within the past year he realized what SOA/BPM could do for his technologically stagnant profession.
Explaining what's changed, he said, "If I'm a Six Sigma practitioner my job is to go fix problem X and my job is to go get data, I now have a place I can go in enterprise IT. I can find ways to connect to that world and get the data more quickly. Furthermore, when I want to strictly characterize that process and model it, which Six Sigma and Lean practitioners do, I now have a way of modeling business processes more completely and rigorously so everyone can talk to what's really happening, not just my abstract static description of it on a napkin or a Visio screen."
Once a business process is analyzed and improved, SOA governance allows the practitioner to set policies that keep the corrected business process running as required so they don't go "wandering off," Williams explained. "With BPM and BAM capabilities on top of the SOA, I can put that closed loop control mechanism in place. It's like the Holy Grail for the Six Sigma practitioners."
The use of SOA/BPM in process improvement is a win-win for both the practitioners, who can now throw away their diagrams on the backs of cocktail napkins, and IT professionals who can now play a major role in the Six Sigma and Lean processes.
"Now, suddenly the IT people are empowered," Williams said. "The IT camp can take BPM and bring it to the table to help the companies apply Six Sigma or Lean to help improve business performance."
SOA/BPM technology in the service of Lean or Six Sigma methodology could provide the missing link bringing IT and the business sides together, he argued. In his consultant practice he found much of what IT professionals were talking about when they talked about BPM was similar to what Lean and Six Sigma practitioners say about business processes "The synergy is there," Williams said. "The combination of technology and methodology is going to allow these two groups to finally get together."