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Best Practices Series: How to Think about Decisions


Let’s continue with our series on best practices for your decision management projects. We covered what not to do in rule implementation, and what decisions should return. Now, let’s take a step back, and consider how to think about decisions. In other words, I want to focus on the approaches you can take when designing your decisions.

Think about decisions as decision flows

The decision flow approach

People who know me know that I love to cook. To achieve your desired outcome, recipes give you step by step instructions of what to do. This is in my opinion the most natural way to decompose a decision as well. Decision flows are recipes for making a decision.

In the early phases of a project, I like to sit down with the subject matter experts and pick their brain on how they think about the decision at hand. Depending on the customer’s technical knowledge, we draw boxes using a whiteboard or Visio, or directly within the tool. We think about the big picture, and try to be exhaustive in the steps, and sequencing of the steps to reach our decision. In all cases, the visual aid allows experts who have not prior experience in decision management design to join in, and contribute to the success of the project.

What is a decision flow

Think about decisions as decision flowIn short, a decision flow is a diagram that links decision steps together. These links could be direct links, or links with a condition. You may follow all the links that are applicable, or only take the first one that is satisfied. You might even experiment on a step or two to improve your business performance. In this example, starting at the top, you will check that the input is valid. If so, you will go through knock-off rules. If there is no reason to decline this insurance application, we will assess the risk level in order to rate it. Along the way, rules might cause the application to be rejected or referred. In this example, green ball markers identify the actual path for the transaction being processed. You can see that we landed in the Refer decision step. Heatmaps also show how many transactions flow to each bucket. 17% of our transactions are referred.

Advantages of the decision flow approach

The advantage of using this approach is that it reflects the actual flow of your transactions. It mirrors the steps taken in a real life. It makes it easy to retrace transactions with the experts and identify if the logic needs to be updated. Maybe the team missed some exotic paths. maybe the business changed, and the business rules need to be updated. When the decision flow links to actual data, you can use it also as a way to work on your strategies to improve your business outcome. If 17% referral rate is too high, you can work directly with business experts on the path that led to this decision and experiment to improve your outcome.

Think about decisions as dependency diagrams

A little background

In the early days of my career, I worked on a fascinating project for the French government. I implemented an expert system that helped them diagnose problems with missile guidance systems. The experts were certainly capable of layout of the series of steps to assess which piece of equipment was faulty. However, this is not how they were used to think. Conducting all possible tests upfront was not desirable. First, there was a cost to these tests. But more importantly, every test could cause more damage to these very subtle pieces of engineering.

As it was common back then in expert systems design, we thought more in a “backward chaining” way. That means that we reversed engineered our decisions. We collected evidences along the way to narrow down the spectrum of possible conclusions.

If the system was faulty, it could be due to the mechanical parts or to the electronics onboard. If it was mechanical, there were 3 main components. To assess whether it was the first component, we could conduct a simple test. If the test was negative, we could move on to the second component. Etc.

In the end, thinking about dependencies was much more efficient than a linear sequence, for this iterative process.

The dependency diagram approach

Today, the majority of the decision management systems might pale in sophistication compared to this expert system. But the approach taken by experts back then is not so different from the intricate knowledge in the head of experts nowadays in a variety of fields. We see on a regular basis projects that seem better laid out in terms of dependencies. Or at least, it seems more natural to decompose them this way to extract this precious knowledge.

What is a dependency diagram

Decision ModelA dependency diagram starts with the ultimate decision you need to make. The links do not illustrate sequence, as they do in the decision flows. Rather, they illustrate dependencies obviously, showing what input or sub-decision needs to feed into the higher level decision. In this example, we want to determine the risk level, health-wise, of a member in a wellness program. Many different aspects feed into the final determination. From a concrete perspective, we could look at obesity, blood pressure, diabetes, and other medical conditions to assess the current state. From a subjective perspective, we could assess aggravating or improving factors like activity and nutrition. For each factor, we would look at specific data points. Height and weight will determine BMI, which determines obesity.

Similarly to the expert system, there is no right or wrong sequence. Lots of factors help make the final decision, and they will be assessed independently. One key difference is that we do not diagnose the person here. We can consider all data feeds to make the best final decision. Branches are not competing in the diagram, they contribute to a common goal. The resulting diagram is what we call a decision model.

Advantages of the dependency diagram approach

Dependency diagrams are wonderful ways to extract knowledge. As you construct your decision model, you decompose a large problem into smaller problems, for which several experts in their own domain can contribute their knowledge. When decisions are not linear, and the decision logic has not yet been documented, this is the right approach.

This approach is commonly used in the industry. OMG has standardized the notation under the “DMN” label, which stands for Decision Model and Notation. This approach allows you to harvest knowledge, and document source rules.

Choose the approach that is best for you

Decision flows are closest to an actual implementation. In contrast, dependency diagrams, or decision models, focus on knowledge. But they feed straight into decision management systems. In the end, think about decisions in the way that best fits your team and project. The end result will translate into an executable decision flow no matter what.

Business Rules and Decisions for Any Industry from Bloor


simon hallowayWe recently had the pleasure of meeting with Simon Halloway from Bloor to give him an update on our decision management and business rule products. Bloor is an independent analyst and research company based in the UK and Simon is their Practice Leader on Process Management and Sensory Devices.

Simon’s focus area includes the intelligent automation of processes using sensors, so he was particularly interested to learn about how some of our customers use SMARTS to analyze sensor data to drive automated decisions.

We were happy to see that he wrote a report following our meeting. In the report, called “Sparkling Logic brings SMARTS to Decisions”, Simon covers how PENCIL Decision Modeler and SMARTS Decision Manager work together. He explains that decision models created in PENCIL can be executed and tested with data in SMARTS. PENCIL let’s business analysts capture and document business rules and decisions using the Decision Model and Notation (DMN) standard and the decision model can be tested and validated in SMARTS.

The report also highlights some of the unique features in SMARTS:

  • The SMARTS workbench provides a complete context for business analysts to define, test, simulate and deploy decisions. Environments like this previously had to be set up by IT using an inconvenient assortment of tools.
  • It’s easy for business analysts to write business rules using SMARTS’ visual rule representations.
  • Decisions involving risk or opportunity are becoming increasingly important. SMARTS lets you directly create or use your existing predictive models.
  • SMARTS’ decision analytics keeps you focused on the goal of better decisions with metrics and dashboard reports.
  • He concludes, “Sparkling Logic’s SMARTS is definitely a solution in Bloor’s view that should be considered if an organization is looking at decision management automation across any sector, whilst still providing all the necessary support for business rules management”.

    Thanks Simon, we couldn’t agree more! Get a copy of the report here.

    I like Excel


    I-Love-Excel Business RulesWho doesn’t?  It is easy to use; most everyone has a copy on their computer; most everyone tracks work stuff (and sometimes personal stuff).  I am guilty as charged when it comes to tracking everything…  finance…  kids school progress…  even our scout outings and achievements…  When it comes to work, I track data as well as logic in my many spreadsheets.  I sometimes feel like I am a little obsessive, but I must admit, it is convenient.

    The ‘problem’ with ease of use is that it encourages a proliferation of these corporate spreadsheets.  I met an insurance company once that was dealing daily with tens of thousands of spreadsheets!

    The question becomes:

    • which one should I be looking at / editing?
    • has it been approved?
    • how to validate the content?

    I am not saying that you should not use spreadsheets, since obviously I am a huge producer and consumer.  My point is that we need to become smarter at managing these spreadsheets in the greater context of the business.

    If the spreadsheet collects data, it is likely that the data was produced automatically out of another system.  Granted, there are times when we need to look for the information and compile it by hand, but, if we are talking about thousands or more of records, I do hope that you have systems automating this process.

    I’d like to focus more on the spreadsheets that you use to collect and document your business decisions.  Phrased that way, does it make sense?  Would it be more relevant to talk about your business requirements?  I have seen a majority of companies use Excel for documenting their business requirements, especially when looking at business rules (because they are independent pieces of logic that don’t really fit any other document type).  That is exactly why the DMN standard (Decision Modeling and Notation) is based on tables.

    There are two main use cases I believe.  Those that use a spreadsheet to document the requirements, and continue managing the evolution of their business rules in a business rules management system.  And those that keep tracking changes in the spreadsheet going forward, providing this spreadsheet to the rules writer (who may or may not be the same person by the way).

    Spreadsheets that document initial business requirements

    The typical example of that would be a DMN decision model that you created by hand.  Not that you need to use a standard to use a spreadsheet for rules requirements.  Any form of spreadsheet would do.  I have actually seen business rules architects use spreadsheets for rules harvesting since I started in this industry, decades ago.

    Back then, spreadsheets were used to collaborate with business users.  They could read and edit the text of the business rule requirements, and iterate until everybody agreed.  Then the rules writer would translate the English version of the rules into the proper rules syntax.  In the more modern days, more automated import capabilities have been introduced, but I still see a fair amount of projects that are coded by hand based on spreadsheet specifications.

    The key in this process is that the business rules play a major role during rules harvesting, but it does not survive the implementation.  The spreadsheet would typically be thrown away after the business rules have been implemented.  From that point on, the subject matter experts would have access to the business rules and would be able to tweak them directly, without a need for the waterfall approach.

    I am absolutely not condemning this approach.  This is a great way to align the constituents before the actual implementation.  If you are about to engage in such activities for your project, I would encourage you to look more specifically at the DMN standard as it embeds methodology in its format.  Instead of starting with an empty spreadsheet, it guides you in the selection of the columns that make sense, while focusing on your end-goal (the decision).  There are online videos that show you how our own DMN tool works (it is called Pencil), but you can also follow the same guidelines by hand on your own white board, or spreadsheet!

    Spreadsheets that continue capturing changes in business rules

    The other use case we see a lot refers to spreadsheets that tend to be much bigger and that capture simple or complex assignments.  Think about rating tables.  In the insurance industry, these pricing schemes can be very complicated.  Complexity is measured here in the number of segmentations, and parameters that you need to look at.  For example, geography would be a parameter, which you could segment at a very fine grain level, for each zipcode (there are 42,000 zipcodes in the US!!).  The pricing would also depend on many factors like the number of accidents and violations, on the age of the driver, on the years of experience, on the classification of the car, etc.

    While spreadsheets are convenient to capture, sometimes auto-calculate, they become significantly less easy to validate.  With a quick eye check, or a quick calculation, you can verify that the rates are growing as expected, but actually validating with data is not that easy.

    The main difference with the previous use case is that you may not want to throw away your spreadsheet.  When a pricing revision happens, you want to be able to make simple edits in the overall spreadsheet, and get them approved independently of the implementation.

    Some tools might give you the ability to import and export tables.  I want to bring your attention to two potential issues that you need to consider ahead of your project implementation.

    First, if the export of the table does not match the format of the original spreadsheet, the business users will not be able to easily connect the dots.  That’s one thing to check early on.

    The second important criteria is runtime performance.  While importing a spreadsheet might be feasible, how large is yours?  We have seen spreadsheets broken down into tens of thousands of rows, and even hundreds of thousands of rows!  While they could turn into business rules, it is not a done deal that the implementation will be able to execute in a reasonable amount of time.

    While I am big fan of business rules (of course), I recommend that you keep these spreadsheet as data that can be referred to by the rules.  Keeping the large table in the database is an option with a big runtime cost (avoid making external calls if you do not have to).  What I would personally do is to use lookup models.  They are in-memory tables (as in ‘data’) that the rules can refer to.  Because they are in memory, they are cached and indexed for performance.  The beauty of keeping your spreadsheets as data is that data can be refreshed without a translation phase as we saw before.  The business translation of what the spreadsheet means is defined once and for all in the interface of this lookup model.  This is where you will define which column is input, which is output, and what they mean if it is not a simple test or assignment.

    I don’t have an online video to show you yet, but we will have an insider webinar very soon.  If you sign up for an Evaluation, you will be invited, and / or will be able to watch the recording at your convenience.

    Rex Keith, from Equifax, and I also presented at BBC last year.  If you have access to the proceedings, there will be some information there too.

    Understanding the evolution of your decision models


    In What is Lifecycle Management for a Business Rule, Carole-Ann touched upon the usefulness of rule versioning for traceability or backtracking. She also mentioned the power of a release, which basically represents the version of multiple rules (or any kind of item) at a given point in time, effectively giving the ability to travel back in time.

    Such capabilities are essential during the implementation and deployment of decision logic; but they can also be extremely useful during decision modeling time, as we will see here.

    Read more…

    Make your decision models more personal


    The Decision Model and Notation (DMN) provides a number of ways to supply specific content to a model, i.e. some kind of information that is not directly related to the modeling or the decision implementation, but which can be relevant in your context nonetheless:

    • All diagram elements (input data, decision, business knowledge model, knowledge source) can have a description
    • Decisions have additional information such as a question that may characterize them and allowed answers, objectives, performance indicators, decision makers, decision owners, BPMN processes and BPMN tasks
    • Knowledge sources also have additional information such as a location for the source of knowledge, and the type of that source of knowledge, as well as an owner

    Pencil Decision Modeler adds more information to the mix, such as the volume of a decision (how frequently the decision is made), its frequency (how frequently it changes) and its latency (how much time is allowed to make and deploy changes). Finally, glossary categories and entries can also have a description.

    While this is great, this may not be sufficient for your own needs: you may need more information to be provided either in the DMN diagram itself, or in decision logic.

    Read more…

    Talking about decisions (part 2)


    In part 1, we talked about a number of ways to formalize knowledge, one being the Decision Model and Notation (brought to us by the OMG). Here we will look at some of the concepts used in DMN, and how they can be used to collaborate around the decisions of an organization. Read more…

    Talking about decisions (part 1)


    talk_decisions_1Every IT project has a number of stakeholders that need to collaborate to make the project a reality. This is of course also true of projects that have a Decision component, or of projects that are strictly Decision-based. And like any project they risk, depending on the organization, falling into the silo effect, where each group of stakeholders lives in its own little island, and very little communication takes place between the silos. This spells almost certain doom for the success of the project… Read more…


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