Design Thinking and the World of Business Process Management

Design Thinking and the World of Business Process Management
Written by Shrikant Balla

Business Process Management (BPM) is gaining positive attention from all levels in an organization; it's become a buzzing stream. 

Organizations plan their transformational journeys using the BPM as a base. This is fair as that is where their operational algorithms / processes lie. Yes, I view these business processes as algorithms of a business. They are step-by-step instructions of what an organization and its subsets must do to keep the wheels moving, in a well-oiled manner (just like an algorithm is needed for a good computer program). 

Why do transformation projects have elevated risk and long timelines? 

Traditionally these processes are driven from the top down with subject matter experts meeting somewhere in the middle, bringing in their view of what needs to be changed or fixed to achieve directive from leadership. Yes, this is good as organizational objectives are key for achieving results. But many times, these mega projects or initiatives spanning across organization, lose their vision of creating or charting a right process vs the process that fits the directive. As a result, losing the key aspect of continuous improvement. 

This could not be blamed purely on a ‘chasing the goal’ mindset but also the disconnected sub organizations and tools/ methodologies used by them. It’s quite easy to get lost in this. From experience with organizations of sizes, this is a common observation. Somewhere the handovers between the teams are not transparent or were not documented, sometimes the data isn’t accurate or available as assumed. This leads to creating series of stop gap projects which pile up for another transformation initiative. 

Most impacted in any transformation are the field users. Whether the transformation project is successful or not, these users are impacted in their way of working. They bring in a key ingredient of ‘Voice of the Customer’ which fuels the continuous improvement for the organization. 


Ideal Transformation Cycle


Why is the voice of the customer (in this case, field user) so important? 

Let’s take a distinct perspective to business process being the guidance mechanism to the field users, in contrast to these business processes being the tool just for instructing organizational goals. One may argue aren’t they the same? Yes and no!

Yes, because the steps of the business process are to provide clarity on the expectation and action. 

No, because the steps are devised mostly from point of view of a borrowed experience or expert assumption based on industry experience. Hence, they do not cover the intricacies like missing hand offs or inaccurate data or lack of right systems which hamper the field users to benefit and use the process which has been designed. 

As a result, it causes friction in transformations and higher resistance to change than expected. 

Field users are the set of users who use and interact with the business processes. If there is a gap in their understanding or if there is hurdle for them to realize the process to the completeness, just like bug in a software, the transformation will run into issues. 

This one reason makes the voice of customer that key ingredient of importance. 

Design thinking & its power to generate groundbreaking solutions.

As per the interactive design foundation this is what design thinking is: 

“What is Design Thinking?

"Design thinking is a non-linear, iterative process that teams use to understand users, challenge assumptions, redefine problems and create innovative solutions to prototype and test. Involving five phases—Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test—it is most useful to tackle problems that are ill-defined or unknown.”

In definition the prominence given to empathy to be the first step of learning about an ill-defined / unknown problem, could make one wonder the possibilities this approach can unearth! 

This approach comes across as very promising in achieving a clearer problem statement and, like they say:
A well-defined problem is half the solution.


Design thinking representation by interaction Design Foundation


BPM + Design Thinking 

Imagine if we can overlay the design thinking methodology on to a transformation project! 

The potential pit falls mentioned above for transformation projects and business processes being inadequate in addressing field user problems most of the time being tackled by the design thinking approach! 

Let’s see how that journey might look like.

With the traditional approach the organizations set their objectives and goals with input from subject matter experts. Based on this they start collating the existing processes to become aware of the existing inventory. 

Unlike traditionally going ahead with implementing the gaps or even mandating the use of existing processes, organizations ‘empathize’ with the field users involving them early in the transformation. Just with this change there could be an enormous difference in the problem statement refinement or the organization strategy.

Once there is a clearer problem statement the potential solutions or changes to operational procedures can be easily planned. 

At this stage there could be two questions which could be perturbing:
1.    How will an organization carve out time to get the understanding of field users?
2.    This seems to be very straight forward, then why is this being presented as an innovative approach?

Let’s try and answer these questions together by saying:
Transformation projects are nonlinear projects

This is not as complex as it may seem. A lot of organizations do involve field users in the form of user group studies and control groups etc. But where this gets off the rails is when these studies or control groups are involved just at the initial stages of the transformation vs them being involved at every iteration or stage. Involving them continuously can be mapped to the ‘Prototyping’ and ‘testing’ aspects of the design thinking. The transformation projects or any big organizational initiatives usually fall prey to their project stage names or milestones. This is conceptually linear whereas the transformation is nonlinear. 

Hence, empathizing with the field users through the project is not expensive and is very much needed. 


Yes! The combination of ‘Design Thinking’ and ‘Business Process Management’ is very much possible. In fact, 90% of projects start knowing or unknowing with this combination, but consistency and perseverance is where the projects deviate resulting in: 
•    High friction and stressful transformations 
•    Higher resistance to change
•    Cost and scope creeps
•    Irrelevancy of the process due to longer timelines from strategy to execution

By having that distinct perspective to business process being the guidance mechanism to the field users in contrast to these business processes being the tool just for instructing organizational goals, combined concepts of design thinking can tremendously increase the transformation project success rates!