UPN: Discovering the unknown unknowns

One of the many amazing attributes of UPN is its capacity for making the difficult not just seem but be extremely easy.  This includes routinely discovering some unknown unknowns – and allowing anyone to do it.

“In February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld … stated … ‘There are known knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know.’ As a result, he was almost universally lampooned since many people initially thought the statement was nonsense. However, careful examination of the statement reveals that it does make sense, indeed the concept of the unknown unknown existed long before Donald Rumsfeld gave it a new audience.

Much scientific research is based on investigating known unknowns. … It is common for the researcher to believe that the result that will be obtained will be within a range of known possibilities. Occasionally, however, the result is completely unexpected—it was an unknown unknown.”

David C Logan. Journal of Experimental Botany

Coincidentally, in the same month that Rumsfeld made his pronouncement, I started using UPN  Since then I have converted hundreds of processes from traditional formats such as documents or Visio charts.  The number of times the conversion process hasn’t revealed a flaw in the original is vanishingly small. 

During my time at Nimbus, converting customer processes was a regular exercise.  Customers asked for methods to automate this so we created a Visio import routine.  The output demonstrated that just because we could import Visio, it didn’t mean we should, because the function lacked the Philosopher’s Stone that would convert base metal to gold. Once the machine conversion was done it had to be worked on to turn it into something useful.

While we may sometimes have been suspected of trying to boost billable hours, we always maintained that conversion was best done manually by an expert mapper, who could take a Visio chart and transform it into a hierarchical UPN diagram in a very cost effective way.

Sometimes we had even less to work with.  I was working with a prospect who had hundreds of process documents (in Word) that were sacrosanct.  We were discussing the merits of preserving them or converting them to UPN in a phased approach.  Options on the table included developing an all-embracing new top down process design – the nuclear option.  The prospect was sceptical, partly because of the ‘billable hours’ issue but also because they had a lot invested in the documents – time and credibility.

I suggested that he pick one at random and give it to me for conversion to see how long it would take and what a before-and-after comparison might reveal.  He chose a thirty-ish page supply chain process.

It took about a day to absorb, disassemble and re-engineer into a UPN map with a parent diagram with six activities and a single level of drilldown on each, so seven diagrams (pages).

When I showed him the ‘after view’ he was impressed with the simplicity that UPN had introduced.  A 75% reduction in pages without losing any content – business as usual for UPN.   He was perturbed when I showed him the ‘after-the-after-view view.’  The conversation went something like this:

“You’ll notice that there are some additional lines and activities on this version.”

“Yes, in red.  What are they?”

“Well, I need you to verify, but those are the things that I believe are missing from your process.”

Prospect scans the process

“You’re right.  Dammit, dammit, dammit.  We only just completed a major reboot of that process, after months of effort by the SMEs, and you’re telling me it’s still wrong?”

“Well ……..”

“Yeah, there’s no denying it, it’s plain to see”

Although I’d like to claim this was due to my exceptional process skills the truth is this was similar to discussions that all our consultants had with our customers at some stage.  It did not indicate an inherent problem with the customers, but with traditional methods of process capture.  When you write a thirty page page linear document to describe a process that is not linear but has loopbacks and exception paths, then even the most expert people will miss something. No user under time pressure has time to read a thirty page document looking for what’s not there.

That prospect, like many others, came to us because despite their best efforts, their processes were still not producing good results for them or their customers.

They had expectations of where the problems were (the known unknowns) but needed UPN’s rigour to expose them. 

They were amazed to find that UPN could reveal the problems they weren’t aware they had (the unknown unknowns) and that it enabled anyone to do it just by applying the methodology correctly.

On reflection, UPN is the Philosopher’s Stone.



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