Top Down vs. Bottom Up

Recently I’ve been reading a fascinating book called On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins, the father of the Palm Pilot.

One section described how the brain and intelligence can be viewed via a hierarchy structure and it became immediately apparent that this could be translated to one of BPM’s age old questions:

Do we begin with a Top Down or Bottom Up approach when starting with BPM ?

I’ve attempted to paraphrase the book’s entry here with a BPM slant which reads quite well given it’s a purely technical slant, but I urge you to read the book itself as it’s truly enlightening.

There’s no right and wrong answer, there’s a mix involved and it really depends on the situation which is why BPM needs to be a flexible discipline going forward.

Trying to figure out how BPM works is like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle. You can approach it in one of two ways. Using the “top down” approach (EWPM) , you start with the image of what the solved puzzle should look like, and use this to decide which pieces to ignore and which pieces to search for. The other approach is “bottom up” (Six Sigma), where you focus on the individual pieces themselves. You study them for unusual features and look for close matches with other puzzle pieces. If you don’t have a picture of the puzzle’s solution, the “bottom up” method is sometimes the only way to proceed. Lacking a good framework for understanding processes, organisations have been forced to stick with the “bottom up” approach. This tasks is Herculean if not impossible, with a puzzle as complex as an organisational structure.

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with several thousand pieces. Many of the pieces can be interpreted multiple ways, as if each had an image on both sides but only one of them is right. All the pieces are poorly shaped so you can’t be certain if two pieces fit together or not. Many of them will not be used in the ultimate solution, but you don’t know which ones or how many. Every month new pieces arrive in the post. Some of these new pieces replace older ones, as if the puzzle maker was saying, “I know you’ve been working with these old puzzle pieces for a few years, but they turned out to be wrong. Sorry! Use the new ones instead until further notice.” Unfortunately, you have no idea what the end result will look like; worse, you may have some ideas but they are wrong.

The puzzle analogy is a pretty good description of the difficulty we face in BPM. The puzzle pieces are process information and data that an organisation has been collecting for years. Each month, new statistical information, data or process is collected and analysed, creating additional puzzle pieces. Sometimes the data collected will contradict the data from another source, and because it can be interpreted in different ways there will always be disagreement.

Without a “top down” framework, there is no consensus on what pieces to look for, which pieces are more important, or how to interpret the overall solution. Has our understanding of BPM has been stuck solely in the “bottom up” approach ?




2 responses to “Top Down vs. Bottom Up

  1. A good analogy Theo, but there are some flaws. Typically, we don’t sit around waiting for new jigsaw pieces to be thrown at us, we’re out there looking for them, validating that they are a part of our jigsaw, or creating the pieces where none exists. Also, we may find we are looking at several quite similar jigsaws rather than just one.Personally, I would not go top down or bottom up, I would start with the customer and work throught the process end to end. In the jigsaw analogy, I would ask my customer what the jigsaw should like like when finished. I would then only be interested in pieces which contributed to that final look in some way. Pieces which don’t contribute directly to the final picture would be discarded, but may be returned to later once the sense of the big picture has been achieved. It may be that these odd pieces can then be reshaped to better fit into the big picture, or they may in fact be discovered to be unnecessary.This method focusses on the end result, getting there more quickly than bottom up and more directly than top down. It is generally more efficient than both. However, if the jigsaw to be tackled is particularly large, care must be taken to identify who the key customers are and which customer services are the priority…Richard

  2. Pingback: Is it bottom-up or top-down?·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s