The Data Briefing: Innovating Processes the Lean and Agile Way

Jun 29, 2016

Business processes have fascinated me since I took an undergraduate philosophy course in modern business management. A part-time professor who was a management consultant by day taught this unusual class. Perhaps business management thinking was first experimenting with ideas that would later lead to the agile and lean movement today. From this class I learned that nearly all organizational issues could be traced back to bad processes rather than poor workers. Bad processes could ruin even the most effective and engaged workforce.

Silhouettes of business people having discussions

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In today’s world of big data, cloud computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the rise of smarter artificial intelligence (AI) applications, processes have become even more vital. Processes are how work is done. The great benefits of big data, cloud computing, IoT, and AI are realized through good processes. Conversely, bad processes can ruin the value of the above-listed innovations. However, this is not the first time that organizations realized the need to innovate processes.

Business process re-engineering was highly popular in the early 90s but quickly lost favor as organizations were accused of using re-engineering to reduce headcounts and legitimize unpopular budget decisions. Most organizations abandoned business process re-engineering when the actual results did not meet expectations. So, what is different about improving processes today?

There are two major innovations in creating and managing processes. The first innovation is adaptive case management (ACM). ACM reverses the traditional way of creating processes by starting with a very simple process model and evolving the model as employees work through cases. Think of the ACM process as a “minimally viable process” that is continually refined based on user feedback represented as cases. Traditional processes may work more efficiently but can become obsolete as situations and technologies change. Traditional processes also have difficulty dealing with change while ACM thrives on change.

The second innovation is process mining. This innovation can be used with traditional processes or with ACM. Like data mining, process mining examines the data created by processes. Here, process data (referred to as “event logs”) detail who did what in a process, how long it took to perform a process step, and the journey through the process steps. Process mining can uncover a process in a complex work situation, ensure conformity to an existing process model, or reveal ways to refine a process.

Applying agile and lean methods has revolutionized how we build applications, collect data, and manage information. Perhaps applying agile and lean methods to business processes is nothing new, as evidenced by how the Navy used innovative project management techniques to build the Trident submarines in the 1950s. However, with the convergence of new information technologies, using agile and lean methods to revolutionize the creation and management of processes can greatly influence how federal agencies and the federal workforce serve the American public.

Each week, The Data Briefing showcases the latest federal data news and trends. Dr. William Brantley is the Training Administrator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Global Intellectual Property Academy. You can find out more about his personal work in open data, analytics, and related topics at All opinions are his own and do not reflect the opinions of the USPTO or GSA.