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.