One of the biggest advantages of thinking about our businesses with new technologies in mind, is that it can enlighten us to see our companies from the outside looking in.

As we all know, business is redefining itself. Smart companies are thinking backwards. They may call it business process reengineering, but they'd do well to start looking at themselves from the outside in. And they are using their Web site as the magnifying glass.

Many companies caught up in reengineering in the last decade spent lots of time and money fixing things internally. We saw Total Quality Management, front-line accountability, Statistical Process Control and a plethora of other inventions that saved money and improved business processes. And these companies proudly displayed their achievement awards in their lobbies.

But they often overlooked an essential part of the mix.

An aside.
I once heard a story about our city’s Alley Theater. Now, this may be one part truth and one part urban legend, but here’s how I heard it.

As the Alley’s benefactors were considering architects to design Houston’s first major theater, they sat through one presentation after another looking at splendid color drawings of the proposed façade. Tall arches flanked by massive porticos and elaborate bubbling fountains.

And then in walked modernist architect, Ulrich Franzen. He removed a blank piece of white paper from his briefcase, and with a pencil, drew a rectangle in the center of the paper.

“We start with the stage,” he said.

While his colleagues focused on impressive aesthetics, Franzen simply turned the process inside out. And he won the project.

An illusion.
Many of those companies I mentioned earlier who streamlined internal operations through reengineering overlooked one essential piece of the equation. Very few of them started the process by looking at their business from the customer’s point of view.

While companies did well to eliminate redundant administrative tasks, shorten time to market, and improve procurement processes, most of these efforts didn’t involve the end customer. They didn’t focus on making it easier for the customer to do business. They didn’t make customers more loyal. And they often didn’t significantly affect the revenue side of the business.

About face.
As we all know, business is again redefining itself. A new approach to business process reengineering. This time, many smart companies are thinking backwards. Looking at themselves from the outside in. They’re using their Web site as the magnifying glass. Once you begin to see your company up close from your customer’s perspective, you’ll learn some interesting things.

For example, you’ll discover that people will happily tell you exactly what they want. And especially what they don’t want. You might learn that to make customers really happy, you have to throw out many of your traditional business processes in favor of customer-based solutions.

Yours is no disgrace.
Your web site can highlight, sometimes in an unflattering way, all the ins and outs of your company’s operations. This is a good thing. You probably already know where many of the holes are. But you fill the gaps and do your best to provide an apparently seamless service to your customers. Meanwhile you’re scrambling to patch the holes before it’s too late.

If yours is like most companies, you have systems in place to make adjustments, accommodate immediate needs, solve problems, and expedite processes. But, now that customers are interacting with you on the Web, those kinds of quick fixes are often less efficient. Some companies I talk with are hesitant to reveal too much about themselves to their customers, or even their business partners. They’re worried that every wrinkle will show, and the naked truth might turn away good customers.

But forward-thinking companies are finding the opposite is true. A customer-focused business model is now a competitive imperative. The more customers know about you - and the more you know about them - the stronger the bond. Making it easy for customers to do business with you twenty-four hours a day, and through multiple channels will require you to streamline your operations again.

So, you're thinking of business process reengineering for your company? Yes, that's fine. But this time, do it backwards.