White Space and BPM - The invisible problem

The "White Space" is the gap between business process steps. Or it is the gap between process handovers. It is also the single largest cause of process issues in companies today.

I would like to say that White Space is good. But I can't. I can't even say it's bad. It just 'is'. It exists at the intersections of all the parts of your business processes. It exists where somebody hands a process step off to another person. It exists where a deliverable is passed between two departments, where a message needs to be transferred to somebody else, where control is passed. In fact it exists all around us.

Like the cosmic force 'dark matter', white space cannot be seen, but its affect on the process can be felt. Anytime you create, implement or execute a process you are inherently building in white space. In and of itself that is not a problem. Without the white space there would be no opportunity to implement the process and it might just collapse under it's own weight.

But the mere existence of white space is going to cause potential problems later on in the process. Whilst white space is - by itself - harmless, the effects of white space can be dangerous and far reaching.

Examples of White Space

Imagine I have a process which calls for me to complete a specific document and pass it to a third party for signature. I can complete the document and I can hand it to the third party. However unless that third party physically takes delivery of the document there is a possibility that it will be lost. This document is now in the white space between process steps.

What's more, even if the document gets given to the third party, they receive it and sign off receipt of the document, unless they can then immediately sit and do something with it (i.e. continue their process step) the document is still in white space. It is quite possible that the document will be lost, forgotten, misplaced, tampered with or altered before the next step takes place. That's the white space again

Waiting for input is another way that White Space plays into the process. Imagine your process calls for you to send a survey to your customer and await the completion of that survey. A single survey sent to a single customer is one thing, but if you are now waiting for 200 surveys sent to 200 customers it is important that you can track and manage the status of those surveys.

What will inevitably happen is that some of the surveys will not make it to the right person. Some will make it to the right person and be ignored. Some will make it there and be lost. Others will make it to the right person, be dealt with, but filled in or completed incorrectly, and sent back (sometimes to the wrong address). Each of these is an example of the kind of thing that can go wrong as a result of the white space

Can the White Space problem be solved?

The short answer is that all white space problems can be solved. However in reality the question that needs asking is 'What are we willing to spend to solve the white space issue and will that be enough?
Take the survey example shown above. One possible solution is to make the survey and on-line one. You remove the 'loss' issue, as well as the 'return' issue. By sending constant reminders and adding incentives you can reduce or even eliminate the 'ignore' issue, and this will also reduce the 'wrong person' issue.

If you are willing to spend enough money on implementing a solution like this you can then solve that particular hand-off problem. But the truth is that all you are really doing is moving the problem along to another part of the handover. The best you can really do is analyse your risk and mediate where necessary:

1) Minimise hand-off's
If each hand-off is a potential risk then reducing the number of hand-off's will obviously reduce the risk. Analyse your process and see if there are unnecessary hand offs between roles.

2) Implement feedback loops
Whenever there is a hand-off ensure there is a feedback loop which will clarify the correct receipt of a document or instruction. This can be as simple as a tickler with a follow-up action attached to it, or as complex as an electronic acknowledgment that something has arrived.

3) Clarify expectations
Whenever something is handed off - either between individuals or across functions, ensure that the receiving individual is clear about what should happen with that hand-off. Are the expected to sing it? If so, what is the timeline? Are they expected to process it? If so where and how? Clarity of expectations and actions is paramount.


Although processes inherently create white-space, the management of this space can be relatively simple. Following the three steps above can help to alleviate any hand-off problems you may have.

Reminder: 'The Perfect Process Project Second Edition' is now available. Don't miss the chance to get this valuable insight into how to make business processes work for you.

Click this link and follow the instructions to get this book.

All information is Copyright (C) G Comerford

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