Are your business processes ready for a snowstorm?

It’s December here in Montreal, and snow is back in our lives for the next 4-5 months. Excited weathermen on TV news, traffic jams, closed schools and power outages will become our new daily and unexpected routine, even if the same thing happens every year (before your leave this page, this is not a rant against snow; I actually love winter!).

As I was walking to the train station the morning after our latest snowstorm (3-4 inches / 10 cm), I thought about all these normal activities that needed to be adapted for winter and other seasonal exceptions, so that our nordic life could continue as normally as possible. And then came the idea about this post: as Business Analysts, how can we help organizations to deal with exceptions in their business processes?

Business processes exceptions are everywhere

Natural disasters, like major snowstorms, can quickly disrupt human activities. Depending of your level of preparedness, it can be easy or not to deal with the consequences (remember Boston a few weeks ago?). However, even smaller exceptional events can also impact the normal flow of operations.

A normal snowstorm in Montreal (5-10 inches / 10-25 cm of snow) has a lot of impact on business processes. However, most organizations are prepared to manage these exceptions. For example, city governments initiate exception business processes as soon as a snowstorm is announced: to schedule additional city workers and hire contractors for snow cleaning and removal, to plan for priority routes to clean so that emergency services can continue to work, or to communicate snow cleaning activities to citizens on a local basis.

School boards also have processes to deal with snowstorms, in order to ensure that school buses can pick up students in a safe way, or to announce snow holidays to parents if buses can’t make it. Even private enterprises deal with these exceptions, for example by allowing/encouraging their employees to work remotely if possible, so that they stay safe, or don’t get stuck for hours in traffic jams. By doing so, organizations can maintain their operations even when such an exception occurs.

Why is exception handling critical for organizations? One key consideration is how their customers will judge them; as people tend to criticize bad behaviors more than compliment good ones, any exception badly handled can be a nightmare to manage, especially in our social media-driven world!

Tips to identity business processes exceptions

Business processes are not in place only to manage regular, frequent, standardized situations. As Sameer Patel explains:

The thing is, completing business activities efficiently and to the customers’ (internal or external) satisfaction, is not just a volume game. Exceptions maybe just that – stuff that happens less frequently. But the mistake we often inadvertently make is equating lesser frequency to relatively lesser criticality in terms of loss or risk.

An exception in a business process can be critical, or not. To be sure that you are ready to handle them, you first need to identify them. How? Here are some tips to help you identify and handle them when analyzing a business process.

Look inside the process

In order to find exceptions, what should be the first thing to consider? The users, of course! Too often, documentation & procedures only describe how to handle regular situations; exceptions are processed manually, without any official pattern. By asking users what kind of exceptions they encounter in their day-to-day work, you will have a better idea of how the business process is really standardized.

Be careful; while you might think of them as exceptions, your users might consider them like “regular” situations if they have to deal with them often. Asking them “do you handle any exceptions in your tasks?” might not give you the right answer in this case. These exception triggers might help you create more meaningful questions.

Look outside the process

Exceptions are not always triggered from inside the business processes; they might come from the environment outside the processes. Do you have specific groups or individuals handling requests for special customers? Are your business processes spread around the world, requiring you to work differently depending on the country you’re located? Are there laws that force you to do some work in a specific situation, but not in another one?

Technology, organizational structures, laws, competitors, customers and suppliers are influencing how you manage your business processes.  Be sure to check this moving world before you come to the conclusion that your business processes do not have exceptions.

Embrace exceptions, don’t fight them

Exceptions are there, whether you want it or not. By having some basic knowledge about them, you are in a better position to handle them. From there, you can decide to change the way you process the exception by standardizing it (which is wize when it happens often), or defining a specific sub-process to deal with it (which I tend to do when it doesn’t happen often). Otherwise, handling these exceptions will become more and more costly over time.

Exceptions should become the new norm in your processes; this will help you offer a better service to your process customers, as well as ease the path toward process automation, which can be a nightmare when you have to deal with a lot of business process exceptions.

Even with so much attention given to business process exceptions, there are still some situations that you will not be able to manage as exceptions, like major disasters such as floodings and earthquakes. Dealing with such exceptions requires another approach, known as business continuity. By combining both of them, your organization will be ready for anything!

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Do you have other tips to deal with exceptions when analyzing business processes? Have you seen problems (or successes) related to business processes exception management? Please share your experience with us in the comments below, or in the social medias (FacebookTwitter, or Google+)!

Image credits: Eric Provost (Square Victoria, Montréal on December 11th 2014)

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By Eric Provost

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Eric Provost

Making sense out of chaos as a BA & UX specialist

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