A tool for Public Service Change
Business Process Re-Engineering as a technique has been around for some time and is often advocated as a way of refocusing how public services are delivered. But how much is really understood about it? Could it help in the quest by Gordon Brown to put the citizen back at the heart of the services that we deliver?
What is it?
When should it be used?
What could it achieve?
What is Business Process Re-Engineering?
BPR, also known as process innovation, is a jargon term with no magic formula behind it. In fact many public sector organisations are already carrying out BPR type reviews continuously, but with little co-ordination or corporate direction. BPR is fundamentally a simple concept, taking the goals of an organisation and identifying the best way to meet them given the constraints within which the organisation has to operate.
In order to work effectively BPR needs people who have more expert understanding of your business than expert understanding of BPR. It must draw extensively upon the knowledge and experience of staff and managers, and is a common-sense process, but one that has to be carefully managed and facilitated. One of its main features is seeking maximum organisational benefit from the use of advanced information systems. This is frequently called "leveraging" information systems, and may call for specialist assistance.
Michael Hammer and James Champy, the originators of the BPR concept, thought that it should be seen as a journey, involving a change in management and staff attitudes, rather than a destination. BPR is a means for an organisation to evolve radical ways of meeting new challenges, whether they arise from changes in practices and technology, for example the inexorable rise of day surgery in the NHS, or are imposed from outside, such as the regular national shifts of emphasis onto different client groups.
BPR is a cyclical process and involves the following steps:
Examining and resetting organisational goals
Determining the best way of achieving them
Implementing fundamental changes in organisational structures and procedures
Embedding continuous improvement
Re-evaluating organisational goals
When Should BPR Be Used?
Hammer and Champy identified three cases where BPR can be used:
Those who have crashed into a wall and are lying bleeding at the bottom of it;
Those who think that they might have seen a wall approaching in the car headlights;
Those who are out for a drive on a nice sunny day and get out to build a wall for the other guy to crash into!
What Could BPR Achieve?
BPR solutions often involve empowering teams and individuals to act as "case workers". The case worker, or indeed case team, takes responsibility for a client and operates freely across the organisation to organise the goods or services that the client needs - interfacing with the various departments required.
Does this client focus seem familiar to you? In many ways the model suggested by Hammer and Champy, reflects the organisation of a local authority or health trust, for example, in an acute hospital the clinician usually acts as the "case worker" - we do not expect the inpatient to organise their own nursing care, X-rays, pathology tests or meals.
If the social businesses of the public sector are already organised by having case workers or teams responsible for patients and clients, how then can BPR help resolve some of the issues that we currently face?
BPR can address questions such as:
"How can we devolve genuine power and responsibility to communities?"
"How do we set goals for teams and monitor the quality as well as the quantity of their output?"
What can we do to reduce the administrative burden on front line staff to allow them to spend more time in providing services such as teaching, patient care and policing?
"How can we manage the transfer of responsibility for clients between different service arms such as patients between acute, community and GP centred care
"How can we improve cooperation between different bodies responsible for providing services to the same citizen, for example transfers from health to social care or the integration of health, social care and justice bodies in critical areas such as child protection?"
BPR can often facilitate larger performance improvements than other techniques. This is because BPR looks at problem areas as processes, which can stretch across a whole organisation, rather than as a series of discrete tasks that individually are only capable of fine tuning. Frequently the biggest changes come about through changes in attitude and perception; cross departmental and inter-organisational working; and the empowerment of staff closest to the client.
BPR is not an easy option and requires an organisation to commit to both freeing management time for the change process and to funding the changes identified. It could be used radically, turning a whole organisation inside out and making it totally client-centric, but can also be adopted incrementally. This step-by-step approach allows you to define areas critical to performance, for example, ensuring waiting lists are managed to ensure maximum performance, or reorganising referral and assessment procedures to remove delays and duplications, or setting up client driven appointment bookings and reminders.
In the commercial area BPR has often been used in a crude way to reduce headcount. In the public sector this may also be a current issue but in more certain times it is also rather about getting the most from all the resources that you have available, thus improving activity levels or quality.
BPR has to be led from the Chief Executive, with top management committed to the programme of improvement. The level to which improvements in activity, quality and cost will be achieved depends upon two factors:
The starting point - how good is the organisation already at performing key processes?
The will to implement - there can be entrenched attitudes and fear of change at all levels.
One thing is certain, strength of leadership is needed to overcome the human issues. It is often how well these are handled that will decide the balance between a successful and a failed BPR project.
Within any public body there are areas where you will benefit from BPR techniques. If you match your objectives and priorities with your overall service delivery plans you will uncover opportunities to remedy existing problems, avoid potential ones, and build that metaphorical brick wall for the other guy.
Copyright PNC Consulting Ltd 31/3/09