Do things really need to be this complicated?


Bureaucracy can be frustrating. For example, at TU/e, an assistant professor’s request to be promoted to associate professor is reviewed by a multitude of departments and committees. Processes often contain ambiguities and unnecessary steps. It is high time we use our common sense, writes columnist Boudewijn van Dongen.

Processes, I adore them. My chair is called “process analytics” for a reason. To study processes, we use all kinds of models. These may be formal mathematical models, conceptual models, but also textual descriptions.  

Like any company, TU/e also has a large number of processes documented, both formally and in text. The formal models serve as the basis for our support systems, such as Unify, Osiris, Planon, you name it. The written models serve as guidelines for examination committees, program managements and all manner of services.  

It was back during my doctoral research days that my colleagues and I showed that formal description of processes is not easy. Year after year, my students show me that process modeling is not a trivial task for them, but even in commercially available models, the error rate is over 5% (my colleague Luc Brunsveld will be pleased to know that this work has also been published in German1.)  

Processes at TU/e also contain many ambiguities, errors and unnecessary steps. And although there’s usually a historical explanation for why each individual process step was introduced in the first place, it’s often far too complex as a whole. For example, an assistant professor’s request to be promoted to associate professor is reviewed by HR, twice by the full Doctorate Board, by an appointment advisory committee consisting of departmental, interdepartmental and external members, and by a Department Board. As a result, the cost of such a procedure runs into the tens of thousands of euros. 

Another example is the processing of expense claims. A process that, up until last year, worked very efficiently. Now we have Unify and as expected, there is “Sand im Getriebe”. For weeks now, I’ve been getting reminders to approve an empty expense claim. According to the help desk (LIS), this claim shouldn’t exist, but it does. And soon, we’re going to use Osiris Case to handle student requests to the exam committees. We’ll see how that goes... 

The university's goal is to grow organically. If the university truly wants to grow, we will have to focus on efficiency in our processes together. That’s what we call “economy of effort,” and contrary to what many people think, it’s not the same as top-down standardization. We shouldn’t be afraid to specify things in less detail and use more common sense in everything we do. Because let’s be honest: “do things really need to be this complicated?”.  

Boudewijn van Dongen is a professor of Process Analytics at TU/e. He writes this column in a personal capacity 


1 Mendling, J., Neumann, G., Aalst, van der, W. M. P., Dongen, van, B. F., & Verbeek, H. M. W. (2006). SAP's Referenzmodell: Sand im Getriebe. IX Magazin fuer professionelle Informationstechnik, 13(8), 131-133.

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