People often wonder makes a good business process management design. Should a process include many small steps, or should it be a few large steps? Do we avoid user actions, or do we make extensive page-flows as part of our process? I find that these things are not what makes a process design good or bad. Good design is mostly about avoiding pitfalls. Here are some tips that will make your business processes better.
Separation of business data and process state
The most important step for good BPM design and improved workflow management is to remove all your business data. You don’t need to keep the address of your customer in your BPM database. It introduces only problems, because what happens if your customer moves while your BPM flow is in the middle of the process? Instead you only want references to entities in your BPM. Everything else must be moved to a service elsewhere in your enterprise environment.
Keep the focus on the process: which steps do I need to take, and which decisions do I need to make? The business data is there to facilitate the flow, but instead of pulling the data inside and holding it inside the process, you need to access it on-demand and only store the answer of your question, not the data that leads up to the answer. You may want to log the decision making, but you should not keep the data itself for later use.
Not so long living processes
We often state that BPM is for long-living process as contrary to the normal, short-living EAI and SOA services. This is however a major pitfall. Long-living in this context means that it the process can be suspended for a while, it is able to survive a system reboot and may wait for user input for a while. It doesn’t mean that the process should live for months or years. It would be a very bad BPM if you designed a BPM that starts when somebody becomes a customer, and ends when she leaves. The process would potentially live for many years, pulling along the burden of many years of patches, changes and upgrades. In the end, every process would be unique: the combination of upgrades and the state at which the upgrade happens will make it so that no two processes share the same history. A system of many unique processes is maintainable, and impossible to govern.
Instead we should have multiple short lived business processes that focus on a certain state change: somebody becomes a customer. This state change is always about a business entity, and this entity will be the part that continues on after the process ends. The BPM will be long-living, but in this context, that may be 1 hour for the administrative steps to finish, or a few days while the credit check is pending, etc.
This process will now live for a few days, making maintenance and government much easier.
Move forward, not backwards
An efficient business process never returns to a previous step. Your customer intake should include all information that is required for your BPM, so that you don’t need to call the customer again for more information. The same holds for the other steps in your flow. Once a user has finished her input, the flow should move on and not return to her.
It should also hold for business services: you go to a service and complete your interaction in one, atomic step. This avoids a lot of pain, because otherwise it could happen that the business data is modified inbetween your steps, making your second step invalid. Handling these types of errors is one of the most costly parts of BPM maintenance.
In process design, this means that the decision making may need to occur during the interaction with said user. An extra screen with detailed questions may popup if a certain condition applies later in the business flow. By pulling this decision to an earlier moment in the flow, we can avoid going back to the user for follow up questions. This avoids stalls in the process, such as the original user being on holiday or otherwise unable to pick up this specific task.
Finally it also holds that a loop should not occur in the normal flow. You can have a loop that handles every item in an array, but you should avoid a loop that performs the same steps for the same business entity again and again. If such a business logic is required, it should be multiple business process instances started after eachother on the same business entity, not one big process.
There is however one exception: during error handling, a retry is very common, and in this case it is perfectly acceptable do loop back to a failed step to retry it.
Keep it simple stupid
Designers tend to overthink the BPM. Many of the details can and should be handled outside of the stateful BPM. Decision making for example can be handled in the BPM code, but it is harder to maintain than a simple service that provides a yes/no answer. The code in the BPM flow should then only test the answer of the service, and not do the underlying comparison itself. The business logic of these business rules tends to change often, while the BPM flow normally stays the same. A stateless service can be modified easily without issues with backward compatibility and job migrations, while a stateful BPM flow has all of this pain embedded. Keep the hard stuff outside of the BPM code, and only pull the results in the BPM scope.
Good BPM design is not easy. It is mainly about avoiding the common pitfalls. The ones listed here are by no means complete, but they are often overlooked by the normal trainings you get by the BPM software development firms. The normal trainings are about what is possible, but they tend to forget that it may be unwise to do so. Don’t go blindly on what the tools offer: to them BPM is a hammer and every problem a nail. You should know when to use the hammer, and use it well.