DBASim: Process Simulation to Find Automation Opportunities in the “New Normal”

By Jared Michalec Posted May 20, 2020 In DBASim

We are living in interesting times. Most organizations are struggling to keep a handle on day to day operations, and business processes are being tested and stretched to their limits. Many operational decisions are being made in reactive, rather than proactive ways, and the downstream impact of those decisions may not be visible for months or years down the road. How can businesses better equip themselves with knowledge and information, and perhaps test their plans and assumptions before putting them into practice? This is where a new offering from Salient Process can assist and allow organizations to be smarter and more accurate with their decisions. 

 The Origin of DBASim 

At the end of 2019, we released a blog on the topic of our IBM Blueworks Live accelerator called Blueworks Insights. If you have not reviewed that and are familiar with IBM Blueworks Live, then I would recommend taking a look here. In that blog, I discussed a number of capabilities that the tool offers, including Simulation module. Since then, we decided to branch the simulation capability into its own standalone application called “DBASim” (short for “Digital Business Automation Simulation”). This was done for multiple reasons which we will discuss below. 

 What We Mean by “Simulation” 

The term “simulation” can mean lots of things depending on the context. This is especially true in the world of process improvement and automation. Our original goal when tackling the simulation problem stems from our long history in the space, and our background with IBM Blueworks Live. The Blueworks platform offers very intuitive, collaborative ways to discover and capture information about an organization’s business process, and some nice ways to step through those using the “Playback” feature. However, this is not truly a way to simulate your process and it is sometimes difficult to test your scenarios. 

Another source of inspiration came from the IBM Business Process Manager (BPM) Optimizer. This capability offered an on-premise option to run scenarios through existing IBM BPM Process Applications in order to identify bottlenecks or view impacts to changes of the process. However, this capability was deprecated by IBM when the development environment (Process Designer) was moved to a browser-based experience, around the end of 2017. 

Our current approach to simulation is essentially a way to take an existing business process model (either from IBM Blueworks Live, IBM BPM/BAW, or elsewhere) and provide a way to run one or more scenarios using multiple constraints and measurements to view important aspects about the process. Throughout the rest of this blog we are going to explore some of the features of this new accelerator from Salient Process. 

 Starting Out 

When you first log into the DBASim environment, you are presented with a welcome message and some different options to get started. Users can choose to import a Blueprint from IBM Blueworks Live, import a Process Application from IBM BAW or BPM, create a process from scratch or upload a file that complies with one of the necessary specifications (more on that later). 

Figure 1: Initial Screen 

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Currently the most common approach for our clients is to import a Blueprint from IBM Blueworks Live so let’s start there. Because DBASim inherits some core capabilities from our Blueworks Insights tool, we are able to prompt the user for their credentials and log into a user’s Blueworks Live environment to select a process to simulate. 

Figure 2: Log into IBM Blueworks Live 

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Figure 3: Select a Blueworks Live Blueprint 

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 Automation Opportunities 

Once the process is imported or uploaded, the system will automatically analyze the diagram for important keywords, patterns, systems and other metadata (including additional information from Blueworks Live if available) in order to make an initial recommendation on the potential opportunities for automation. 

Figure 4: Automation Opportunities 

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While this is not intended to be a perfect predictor of all activities that can benefit from automation, it does a good job of at least surfacing talking points where we can focus some of our efforts in determining if there is a fit or not. These opportunities also align with the IBM Digital Business Automation strategy which provides capabilities in the 5 key areas of automation (Tasks, Workflow, Decisions, Content, and Capture). The intent of this new accelerator is to close the loop on this initial identification of potential, to the quantification and validation that automating those steps will indeed bring the return on investment that is expected. 

 Setting Up the Scenario(s) 

In the second tab of the current screen we can start building our scenario which is where the real simulation capabilities start to manifest. The user can enter some general properties for the simulation, such as how many instances, whether to run for one or multiple scenarios and even enter some more advanced details. 

Figure 5: Basic Setup Details 

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Below the general properties, we start to get into the real meat of the simulation builder. Because we imported this diagram from IBM Blueworks Live, it automatically brought over the two snapshots I had in that platform and turned them into “versions”. This includes the snapshot I called “As-Is” as well as the most recent version which is defaulted to “Current”. However, we can easily create new versions or rename and even delete them if needed. This is especially useful when a diagram only has a single version, but we want to create multiple scenarios. 

Figure 6: Versions and Details 

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In addition to the scenarios, we can start to add additional constraints to the simulation in order to more effectively gather differences between the versions. In the screenshot above you can see resources that were brought over (via the “participant” in Blueworks Live or the “swim lane” in BPMN) and we can add more details to this, such as how many resources we are allocating in this scenario, and how much we are paying each resource per hour, per day, per year, etc. These constraints can vary between different versions or snapshots so we can see the impact if we are adding or removing resources. 

In addition to the resource constraint, we can add constraint details to the steps as well. Again, since we brought this process over from IBM Blueworks Live it will automatically bring over the Work Time, Wait Time, and Cost values.  

Figure 7: Activity Constraints 

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However, in some cases these values are limiting because they only represent “fixed” cost (i.e. a given Activity always takes exactly 10 minutes to complete). This is probably not realistic for most real-life situations. In DBASim, the user can specifnot only fixed amount of times/cost but also variable distributions such as “normal”, “exponential”, “uniform” and others. 

Figure 8: Time and Cost Distributions 

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The last constraint we will discuss is maybe one of the more important ones since it has dramatic down-stream impacts to the process performance. This is in the gateway distributions. Since the process models we are importing do not necessarily support a way to set how the gateways operatethe system will default these to 50/50 if there are 2 exiting branches. If there are more branches, it will set the probability to be equally distributed (3 gateways would be 33/33/33, etc.). DBASim allows users to set their own distribution percentages which may be one of the best opportunities for process improvement. For example, if through data validation or requiring certain information you can go from a request that gets approved 50% of the time to 70%, that could have dramatic down-stream benefits. Less re-work time, processes finish faster, etc. But how do you know? DBASim lets you test these hypotheses to determine how impactful some data validation or more accurate estimates can do. 

Figure 9: Gateway Distributions 

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The Results 

Once the scenarios have been created, you can run multiple instances of the simulation through the tool. In this example, we will run 1,000 unique instances through the engine all at once in order to capture the results. The first view that we get is a quick visual of the different steps and overall measurements of each activity. This includes a time-series view as well as a breakdown of the 3 main measurements: Work Time, Wait Time and Cost for each stepWe can also view the average values, and even the minimums and maximums. 

Figure 10: Simulation Result Charts 

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In addition to the charts, we can visualize the process and even overlay the diagram with heatmap data from various measurements such as Work Times, Wait Times, Cost and Step Counts. The following chart shows the Work Time heatmap of the current process which should correspond to the spikes in the chart in the previous chart in Figure 10. 

Figure 11: Work Time Heatmap 

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On the second tab, the user is provided with visualizations focused on the resources. This includes a chart for the measurement for each resource. Further, there is a chart for the resource for each measurement, a sort of inverse chart of the first one. This helps process analysts and business owners understand the different outcomes for the resources. 

Figure 12: Resource Results 

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The last tab allows for comparison across the different versions. While we only have two versions for this run-through it is not overly complex, however we would be able to run multiple versions (or scenarios) through the simulation to see how they compare against one another. In this example, the main focus was setting the constraint differences on the “approval” gateway. In the “As-Is” version, this was set to the default of “50/50”. In our “Current” (or “To-Be”) version we set this to “70/30” meaning we would improve our approval percentage to 70% vs. 50%. With this small improvement, we can see dramatic results in the version comparisons, and not just in the number of “rework” loops we see in the top chart. We see a dramatic improvement in the Work Time and Cost of the down-stream activities as well. 

Figure 13: Version Comparison 

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 Other Sources of Business Processes 

In this example, we started by importing a Blueprint from IBM Blueworks Live. However, there are multiple ways to import a business process, or even create one from scratch. Users can import directly from IBM BAW or BPM via the REST API (assuming the API is exposed as a service). An export of a Blueprint can be uploaded as a .zip or .bpmn file. An export from IBM BAW or BPM can be uploaded as a .twx file. A user can even upload a text file with a list of steps with the participant or swimlane in parenthesis and DBASim will generate the process for you. Lastly, if none of these sources are available, a user can create their own business process using a “checklist” style approach. In this view, steps are added along with some metadata such as who is responsible for it and what system is involved. 

Figure 14: Checklist Wizard 

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Figure 15: Initial Checklist Completed 

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Once the checklist is completed, the user can submit it and it will automatically be converted into a BPMN-compliant process diagram. Additional constraints and measurements can now be added, and even multiple scenarios, so that we can run simulations in order to visualized and optimize the process just like we would do with a process built in IBM Blueworks Live or IBM BAW. 

Figure 16: Checklist Converted into Process Diagram 

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 What’s Next? 

DBASim is an evolving technology and we are continuing to make additions and improvements to it. Some of this focus will be on adding more sophisticated calculations and algorithms to the resource constraints in order to truly test the impact of adding or removing a worker to or from a given step. Further, we are looking at how we can not only calculate the time or cost savings, but how we can also include the investment required to get there. This will allow us to assess the business value of a given change and calculate the return on investment (ROI) to more accurately prioritize our projects and organization changes in this volatile environment. 

 Summary 

We at Salient Process are working closely with our clients to help navigate these difficult times. As such, we are very excited to offer this new capability to our customers and to provide a free trial to any organization interested in it. If you are interested in seeing a demo or taking the tool on a test drive, feel free to reach out to us at sales@salientprocess.com or go to https://salientprocess.com/dba-sim 

Video: IBM Digital Business Automation Platform