Operational business decisions happen every minute of every day in your organization. You’d like to think that business managers can truly manage them. You’d also like to think that the results of those decisions are comprehensively correct, consistent, traceable, and repeatable (high quality). But are they? Based on real-life evidence I strongly suspect they often are not.

Let’s be clear what kind of decision I mean. Say “decision” and many business people immediately think strategic decision (e.g., whether to enter some new market), or tactical decision (e.g., which supplier to use for a year-long special project). Those are not the kinds of decision I’m not talking about.

When IT professionals talk about “decisions” they often mean branch points within the deep systemic logic executed by machines – classic “decision points” in data processing. That’s not what I mean either.

Instead, I mean decisions in the day-to-day, minute-to-minute bread-and-butter operations of the business. Some examples of such operational business decisions:

  • Whether to give a mortgage to a given applicant.
  • What discounts a premium customer will receive on a purchase.
  • Which customer gets preference if some product or resource is in short supply.

Your business makes these kinds of decisions hundreds or thousands of times a day – or hour, or minute. These are the kinds of decisions that regulators, auditors, and compliance officers care about. The kind your business partners deem important because they are directly impacted.

Are the decisions high quality? At a major insurance company a thoroughly competent, highly experienced business system analyst recently told us: “When we looked hard at business rules currently implemented in existing systems, we found at least 30% were flatly wrong.” After a moment’s reflection he added, “That’s a very conservative estimate; the actual figure was probably much higher.”

The organization was just beginning to recognize the magnitude of the problem. And whose problem is it? The analyst said, “IT told us they couldn’t solve the problem because it was a business issue not a software issue. And they were absolutely right about that.”

We might have thought this case an outlier if we hadn’t heard similar estimates from credible sources in many other companies. And we’ve found the same ourselves.

Not long ago we were asked to conduct an audit of implemented business rules in one area of business for a major North American bank. The results frankly astounded us. We double- and triple-checked – no error.

To conduct the audit we first harvested 518 business rules from the relevant Policies and Procedures Manual, the printed (and on-line) reference source for loan officers. How many business rules were implemented correctly in their automated system? We found zero – zero! – fully aligned. Some 447 were actually not implemented at all; the remainder just partially aligned.

It gets even worse. We found 261 business rules implemented in their system that did not appear anywhere in the Manual. What sort of way of doing business is that?! Who (or what) is making the decisions here?!

To put things in proper context it helps to appreciate the costs associated with maintaining legacy systems not built on business rules. In a recent visit to a very large health care organization, a high-level manager cited the following statistics. They’re staggering. He reported it takes their organization:

  • 24 person-years per year to maintain a 30-year old monolithic COBOL legacy system.
  • 400 person-days over a 4-month period to make changes to business rules of ‘moderate’ complexity.

The manager admitted sadly, “Truth be told, we work for our legacy systems, not the business.”

Beyond these frightening costs the manager also described how a subtle stagnation had crept into the staff’s very way of thinking about their business. “Our business leads are so familiar with the limitations of our legacy systems, they don’t even consider business innovations they know from experience to be difficult for the system to handle. Sometimes I wonder if they can even think through innovation effectively anymore.”

With variations it’s a story we hear time and time again. The need for innovation is ever more immediate, but the reality of achieving it ever so distant. Who (or what) is making the decisions is in your organization?!

At BRS, we have dedicated ourselves to pioneering innovative techniques for achieving order-of-magnitude improvements in how businesses literally operate themselves. We offer no silver bullets. It’s heavy lifting putting an organization onto a different track.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. When we see control over decisions coming back where they belong – into the hands of business managers – the results are always extremely rewarding.