The term “BPR” — for Business Process Reengineering — was a popular fad amongst major corporations in the 1990s, so much so that a cottage industry of consultants started circling around it. Despite its noble intentions of process-oriented change through innovation and systems redesign, it became consultant-speak for disguising lay-offs and cost-cutting. In fact one of its founding fathers, Thomas Davenport had this to say about BPRs:

Reengineering didn’t start out as a code word for mindless bloodshed. It wasn’t supposed to be the last gasp of Industrial Age management. I know because I was there from the beginning. I was one of the “creators.” …reengineering has become a word that stands for restructuring, layoffs, and too-often failed change programs … (“The Fad that Forgot People,” 1995, Reegineering)

According to Davenport, the bigger the hype, the bigger are the chances of failure. And when the long-term results were not obvious, the fastest way to show savings was through reducing headcounts — 71 percent of companies that used BPRs used it to eliminate 21 percent of jobs. However, BPRs are a thing of the past. As the intent of BPRs is exposed, it is being replaced by other terms like Business Process Management.

Dr. Edward Deming is internationally regarded as the leading guru in total quality management. In his 14 points for organizations effectiveness he cautions repeatedly against using headcounts for measuring effectiveness. Here is a sample of his recommendations:

  • Drive out fear and build trust so that everyone can work more effectively.
  • Eliminate slogans, exhortations … Such exhortations only create adversarial relationships, as the bulk of the causes of low quality and low productivity belong to the system and thus lie beyond the power of the work force.
  • Remove barriers that rob people of joy in their work.

The problem about quality management is even more acute in the public sector. For example, if the private sector found it unprofitable to maintain parks, they could reengineer the service. However in the public sector, there is no equivalent of the profit’s outcome. The only tangible outcome in terms of customer satisfaction is votes. So I don’t blame the Rick Reynolds of the world trying to reengineer the city (Reynolds is Mayor Jerry Sanders’ designated man in charge of reengineering the city’s processes). But I do worry about them being handed down predetermined political outcomes.

The mayor’s budget is a classic example of outcomes being determined even before the process is implemented. The budget includes cost-savings and reductions for changes that have not been disclosed or discussed or implemented. I have always maintained that the City Council has to authorize any reengineering according to the Charter (Section 26). If the mayor is trying to slip in the reengineering within the budget, it is contrary to the intent of the people. It does not matter whether you call it the Business Process Reengineering or Bypass Public Review. Our citizens are clients and owners of the “process” in the BPR. Citizens, workers and management need to work together to find solutions.

People are not apparatuses. No one likes to be reengineered.


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