Overview and What's New
We had a chance to see Lombardi's latest Blueprint release at Driven last week. We've used Blueprint before in earlier versions, but after revisiting it this time around, there are definite, significant improvements. I thought we'd share our early experiences with Blueprint here, and specifically our reaction to some of the new features added. What's new? Visio import and a good export/import into Teamworks are big pluses. Word export is another new feature, and of course PowerPoint generation has been there from virtually Day 1. Archiving and a revamped project screen were also introduced.
The New Stuff
Visio importing has long been the "holy grail" for process modeling tools. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if a particular BPM product could import Visio models directly I would be rich! However, Visio import into a process execution environment isn't always all its cracked up to be. Visio diagrams tend to be quite unstructured, whereas BPMN is very structured, and executable BPMN is even more structured in form. Moreover, Visio models don't have enough information attached to them to be immediately executable. It is possible to run into issues of "who owns this model" once you import the Visio (the business may have the expectation that they can keep making modifications and "reimport" into Teamworks, for example). At some point, the implementors must take over the model and own it to produce something executable. I've been working on some models for OMG certification and I thought they would be a fun (albeit simple) set of examples to import into Blueprint for a test drive. Blueprint imports these easily and accurately. I went back to the archives and tried importing some really awful process diagrams circa 2004. The results weren't pretty (the original wasn't pretty), but Blueprint imported the models nicely (a visio diagram with 10 tabs and one process per tab). Going to the Diagram View I was able to sort out the diagram into swimlanes and go from there. Interestingly, when I imported a diagram WITH swimlanes defined, Blueprint created those swimlanes and participants for me.
Word export works great, but didn't work so well on my Mac. On Windows it produces a professional document that is a good appendix or a good starting point for the doc. It also eliminates the need to maintain two separate documentation formats - you can use Blueprint as your source and export when you need a Word doc snapshot. Moreover, you can "snapshot" the process in Blueprint as well, so that if you need to reproduce the Word export later, you can...
The diagramming is much improved, from process mapping to actual BPMN
diagramming. The new clickable controls are more intuitive (though I had to unlearn some previous notions because I've been using Blueprint since the early Betas). As before, quick double-click on any item takes you to a pretty robust editing interface for adding participants, owners, experts, inputs, outputs, problems, documentation... Its the Process Diagram (BPMN) view that has really changed over time. Clicking on any line allows adding a new activity, gateway, subprocess or event. Blueprint successfully removes the need to obsess over placement of each item in the diagram. It tends to organize things in neat right-angles, taking care of horizontal and vertical placement within a lane (you pick the lane though).
Project Details Page - This page is so different as to feel like a new page. You can export powerpoint, word, excel process data, and BPDM all from a simple project page. From this page you can also move a process to a different project, archive it, or copy it. The value of these things is more obvious after you import ten processes from Visio!
The Tried and True
The PowerPoint generation is a nice whiz bang feature (only available in the paid-for version). It lays out the first section nicely: goals, followed by process mapping, followed by opportunities. I'd like to see it turn out a process-diagram view as well, but that may be a little tricky to squeeze into a small space. The appendix is aptly named for its content, which is a blow-by-blow layout of participants, inputs, outputs, and problems with each step of the process. I found the color scheme in this section a little jarring compared to the relatively slick look of the rest of the powerpoint. All-in-all, its a great timesaver. It ran so fast for me that I thought it hadn't actually done anything the first time I ran it, ad I can pull together a reasonably professional presentation out of it using the generated slides as a starting point, and putting my own slides referencing ROI or Business Case up front, along with some concluding slides about the opportunities presented and how to tackle them.
BPMN Diagramming. I actually like the diagramming portion better than
Teamworks! And collaborating on the same process isn't just possible,
its actually cool. You almost look for an excuse to try to be logged
into the same process at the same time so you can try to step on each
other. Blueprint handles all the conflicting edits really well. I'm
impressed! And I understand a good deal of the diagramming techniques
in Blueprint may be adapted for Teamworks in Teamworks 7, which is an
exciting development for Business Process implementors.
The handling of Revision History is a clear advantage over Visio or any other tool I've worked with. As far as I can tell, every change I make is tracked as a revision, such that I can recover lost work if I accidentally delete something important by restoring from those automated snapshots. But I can also create my own Snapshot and name it, a point in time to be easily remembered going forward. This takes the risk out of collaborative authoring, and out of revisions in general, because you don't have to be worried about version history. Cycling between versions is simple and fast, so finding the right one isn't too stressful.
Room for Improvement?
The product has a clean interface and a good look overall. But there are a few parts I'm not too excited about (yet) that mostly have to do with teeing up projects. First, when prioritizing problems, you can select severity (low medium high) and frequency (low medium high) but you don't have the ability to track how observable the problem is. A problem that is very difficult to detect is much more serious than a problem that is easy to detect, and implies a different type of solution approach. It might seem too complicated for some, but no reason you can't ignore the third column by leaving it always at "low" if the notion of detection/observing is too complicated.
Second, the overall analysis screen leaves something to be desired. It wasn't immediately obvious to me that the impact scores I was looking at were the impacts of solving one problem across the set of higher level business goals I had established. Once that was clear, I found myself wondering how these impact scores were derived. To the layman it doesn't appear that there is any structural relationship between a timing problem and my goals, but if I give them both high weight then the impact score will be higher against that goal.... So it isn't immediately clear to me if the idea is to look at this page and then revisit your scores, or if it is really supposed to guide me in determining which parts of the process to look at. But as long as the correlation is a black box, I don't trust it.
Third, a process as we know has multiple dimensions to it; it's not just the activities and relationships. Blueprint would benefit from adding Lean Flow data elements like WIP, Cycle Time, Throughput Time, Takt Time, Lead Time, and Number of Operators to each activity and to the process as a whole and have these values actually calculated, not just string values (perhaps an advanced user view or analysis view). Blueprint would then be much more effective in prioritizing and triaging process improvement, i.e. It would close the loop on the qualitative aspects (Severity, Frequency, and the missing Detection) and now provide quantitative elements as well such as time and volume. Again, this would really address the need to represent the many dimensions of business processes.
But for the primary purpose of capturing process maps and diagrams and capturing living documentation about those processes, Blueprint looks like a great tool. Its come a long way in one year, and I look forward to seeing what else is coming down the pipeline. The progress so far is encouraging for what is to come.