Don’t Cross the Streams

Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
Venkman: What?
Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
Venkman: Why?
Spengler: It would be bad.
Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Stantz: Total protonic reversal!
Venkman: Right. That’s bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.

Early in my career I was assigned to an SAP implementation project and received a task to create a financial statement.  I was given a printout of a report from the legacy system and given the requirement of “Create this report in SAP.”  No explanation of which accounts go with particular lines, no explanation of report parameters, and no explanation of how the math was to work.

Back in the day these reports were written using SAP’s proprietary programming language, ABAP, which was similar to COBOL.  Getting the right business logic was the big challenge and getting the formatting to line up properly was tedious.  I thought I had done really well figuring out the business logic and was proud that I had done so on my own with the bare-bones requirements.  The tedium of doing the formatting was all that was left, and before doing that I wanted confirm I had the business logic correct.  I passed the report on to the user in the Finance department with the request that he confirm the numbers were right.

What I received back was a marked-up report showing the formatting problems.  This user wanted a double-underline before the grand-total and the numbers needed to be preceded by dollar signs.  There was no review of the actual figures.  It was frustrating to receive the report back with that feedback and a waste of time given it did not add any value to the project task.

At the time, I thought this user had performed an a-hole move that was really an avoidance of having to do any real work.  Looking back on it, there was a lesson to be learned — aesthetics can be a roadblock to a meaningful conversation.  Research has shown that first impressions are made within the first seven seconds.  If those seven seconds are spent trying to decipher something, then the impression is that the work is shoddy.

Consider these two process maps that convey the same business logic:

Receive_Goods_process_flow_sloppy_2  Receive_Goods_process_flow_4

The process on the left is difficult to follow with all the crossed lines, loops, different fonts, and unnecessary shapes.  Logically it makes sense, but there is some significant mental capital that is spent trying to understand it.  By the time the reader figures out how to follow the logic, they are not focused on the outcome of the process.  The streams are crossed, which is bad.

The process flow on the right eliminates confusion by avoiding the crossed lines, having a simple left-to-right flow, and a limited set of symbols to follow.  It looks like someone put some care and effort into developing it.  With that attention paid to the format, surely the creator paid attention to the business logic.  No need to worry about every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.


Van Halen always had a clause in their contract rider that promoters must provide a bowl of M&Ms containing absolutely no brown ones.  At the time many people thought that was some ridiculous request included as a joke.  The real reason for it was that it was a quick indicator that the promoter had thoroughly read the contract.  Failure to eliminate the brown M&M’s and there is a good chance the promoter failed to address the electrical requirements for the complex lighting system, which could cause significant safety issues.

People will use the superficial aspects of a work product as the initial indicator that the care has been put into the part that really matters.  This may not always be a conscious decision, but it does create biases in our minds.  There will always be times where we share rough work product with a close team member, but that should be with someone where the right working relationship has been developed.  Work presented to a customer or management should be presented in polished format that shows you have taken pride in all aspects of the work.  The process flow streams should not be crossed.

Don’t be a Rube

Great User Requirements Rule # 5:  Don’t automate a bad process

As you gain an understanding of the business process take advantage of the opportunity to make improvements.  See what the technology can do to lean out the process.

I love a good Rube Goldberg invention.  It is so much fun because the intent of the machine is never clear from first glance, so studying one is almost like doing a puzzle.  Even after I read the individual pieces, I often need to do a second read from beginning to end so that I can fully understand.

Self Operating Napkin
Professor Butts and the Self-Operating Napkin

Over time business processes can become like a Rube Goldberg invention.  In business nobody sets out to create a Rube Goldberg process, but it happens over time.  All of the little quirky aspects come up because small adjustments were made to deal with specific situations or to resolve some problem.  Each cracker being tossed to the parrot or rocket being lit was added to the process for a good reason.  Unfortunately, the organization can forget why they have a rabbit running on a small treadmill.  Perhaps the process steps were added a long time ago or the person who implemented the change is no longer with the company.

When implementing a system one of the worst things that can happen is automation of a bad business process.  This causes us to focus so much effort on setting up software for a situation that may be found so infrequently.  Even worse, when we set up the computer to automatically handle the fish jumping through a hoop, it becomes undetectable to the typical user.  The unexpected response of the system is confusing to the user and may even be reported as a defect.

fish hoop

During a system implementation, these crazy nuances can be difficult to deal with.  The implementation team may never be told that there needs to be a knife to cut the string holding up the bucket of water.  They find out late in the project or perhaps after go-live.  If the implementation team does know about the nuance in the process, it is possible the business no longer has a need for it.  The effort that went into setting up a snapping turtle to bite the tail of the dog was a waste.

Avoiding implementation of a bad process starts with a full understanding.  In prior blog posts, I wrote about asking the right questions and developing a process map.  These are fundamental tasks that will help to ensure the team is on the same page.  Often the business users forget that the bowling ball needs to go down the ramp to tip over the watering can.  Having the process map facilitates the discussion to draw this out of them.

Some situations are complex enough that an “As-Is” process map is necessary to document what currently happens and a “To-Be” is created for comparison purposes.  Personally, the only process map I care about is the To-Be, but sometimes the As-Is is a necessary first step.

Team members should also agree on some ground rules to ensure they are on the same page during this phase of the project.  Here are the guidelines I like to go by:

  • Do not design the system for the exceptions:  This does not mean the design is devoid of alternate process paths.  It means avoid spending time on situations that happen infrequently (80/20 rule is typically a good gauge).  Make a note of this scenario so that it can be worked out later during system setup.  Spending time on the infrequent scenarios will prevent you from moving beyond the design stage of the project.
  • Understand how frequently the exception scenarios occur
  • Recognize that not everything must be automated:  Assess the effort/benefit of automating exceptions.  A task that consumes 10 minutes of a person’s time every six months is not worth 35 hours of software development time.
  • Remember that intelligent human beings will use the computer system:  If an infrequently occurring situation arises, they will be able to deal with it.  Often the best way to deal with this is to ensure the user has easy access to all the information they will need to solve a problem.  Can a screen or report be provided with all the information a user needs to assess an deal with a variety of problems?
  • Keep in mind that adjustments can be later:  There is no reason the exception cannot be automated under a Phase II project.  The added benefit of this approach is that users have become familiar with the system and will be able to better understand how the Phase II features will work.

While it could be fun for a team to set up a woodpecker to peck through a piece of wood, causing a flame to light under a balloon, which pops scaring a monkey causing him to jump on a tube of toothpaste and dispensing some on the toothbrush; in the business world that is not worth the effort.   Those team members would be better advised to spend some of their time with the many Rube Goldberg enthusiast who set up contraptions on their own time.  Joseph Herscher is one such guy and here is a video of his invention that turns the page of a newspaper.



A Picture is Worth . . .

Great User Requirements Rule # 4:  Show a picture

Descriptions are great, but process maps can show so much more detail.  They also provide a way to ensure the entire process has been thought through.


The above cartoon has been around so long and there are so many derivations, I have no idea who should get credit for the original.  It is a great reminder that no matter how well a deliverable is described, there will be some critical details missed.  I often wonder what the original description was that led to so many interpretations.  Here is my guess; “We need you to construct a seat attached to this tree with the capability of moving in multiple directions to create the sensation of swinging for enjoyment purposes.”  To avoided the mess above, a lot of words would need to be written to properly describe what the customer needed.  That is not a task I would relish.

Architects use blueprints to confirm the customer agrees with a building design and to guide the work of the contractor.  Implementing a software system should be no different.  A customers needs can be easily reflected in a process map showing how work will be performed in the software.  The things I look for in a good business process map:

  • Business process focused – It does not try to show desired software features.
  • Recognize that rational people perform the process – The objective is not to program a computer.  People with brains, making rational decisions,  will perform the processes.
  • Shows the baseline process – Showing every possible exception is counterproductive.  Show how the process should work and any major deviations that routinely happen.
  • Neatly drawn – Crossed lines, reverse flow of logic, misaligned shapes, and other sloppiness make it difficult for someone to quickly grasp the concept of what is happening.
  • Easily understood – Anyone familiar with the business should be able to pick up the diagram and understand how the work is being performed.  Content that requires the reader to remember something from a prior discussion is insufficient.  Words should be kept brief and precise.  Two words (one verb and one noun) is ideal.
  • Supplemented by text – Text can be used to describe information about what happens in a process step.  This could be how decisions are made by the person performing the task and how exceptions are dealt with.
  • Consistent level of detail – Each process step should be at a similar level of detail.  For example, a process map with steps of “Receive Goods” and “Sign Name” are different levels of detail.
  • Decomposed – Process steps too high-level to fully communicate a concept should have a more detailed process flow to show details.
  • Contains simple shapes – The fewer shapes the better.  The reader will not be able to understand or remember the meaning of many shapes.  I like to stick with five: rectangle, oval (start/end), diamond, on-page connector, and off-page connector.  Sometimes I even drop the diamond decision symbol and have multiple labeled lines come out of a process flow, which is clear that a decision was made within the process step.
  • Logical flow – A properly developed process flow will help ensure the process is fully documented.  All process steps should lead to another stop or a start/end.  Decision diamonds have at least two outputs.


Here is a simple example that demonstrates the above rules.


Notice how everything flows left to right.  When the first line reaches the end of the available space an on-screen connector is used to resume the left-to-right flow.  The lines are straight and boxes are aligned.  Process steps follow the verb-noun convention.  There are no orphaned process steps; “Rejected Delivery” goes to a terminator and “Sign for Delivery” goes to a connector that leads to another process flow.

The process is baseline, only showing major and routine exceptions.  For example, “Look Up Purchase Order” does not try to explain the logic if the PO cannot be found.  The process step “Confirm Delivery Matches PO” could be be either decomposed into a detailed diagram or a text work instruction could be provided.

Thorough process mapping can become complex as the number of flows increase and the many connections between them need to be accounted for.  This requires some organization that will be discussed in later posts along with more advanced process mapping techniques.

The old saying “A picture is worth . . .” is undeserved by the normal ending.  I would argue it should be more like “. . . ten thousand words.”