Can We Explain Business Analysis By Relating Our Role to a Plumber?

Explaining the role of the Business Analyst to those not involved in Change can be a real challenge.  I have always found it useful to use analogies, but I’ve never been able to find an analogy that quite fits the BA role.

A Wrench

Are BAs like plumbing engineers, following the flow of information around an organisation?

I’ve heard and used many – from a BA being like a nurse (reading organizational symptoms and proposing treatments) to a BA being like an architect in the building trade (figuring out what the client needs, and engaging with a developer/builder).   Whilst these analogies are extremely useful, I’ve always felt they could be improved. The challenge is how to improve them!

Then a chance incident triggered an unexpected thought.  At home, we have an electric shower (which, to be honest was well overdue a replacement).  Last weekend, all of a sudden it started leaking and making some worrying sounds, and we did the sensible thing and called a plumber to replace it.  Watching the plumber at work made me think back to business analysis.  Stick with me here… maybe a BA is like an industrial plumbing engineer.

It sounds insane – I mean, what do we have in common with someone who plans the fitting of pipes?  More than it might first appear:

 

Theme Plumbing engineer Business Analyst
Deal with flow Deals with the flow of water around a building. Deals with the flow of information around an organization, or the sequence of tasks in business processes.
Domain agnostic Doesn’t need to be an expert in the particular type of building they are servicing.  They know pipes, they know junctions and they can apply this to any building. Doesn’t need to be a subject matter expert in the business domain they are working in. They know process modelling, logic, enterprise and requirement analysis and can apply this across domains. “Just enough” domain knowledge to be credible is required.
Help determine and specify what you need Can advise you how to meet your needs.  You might think you need a new shower, but perhaps all you actually need is a new valve! Can advise you how to meet your needs. You might think you need a whole new IT system, but perhaps you can achieve the same goal with a simple process change!
Help you find the problem The cause of a leak might not be as obvious as it seems… perhaps the water pressure is too high. Patching it up won’t help. A plumber can help find the root cause. The cause of a businesses problem often isn’t as obvious as it seems… it takes guts to search for the root cause, but a BA can help trace it, rather than fit an unnecessary ‘patch’.
Liaises with other disciplines When a house is being built, a plumber will liaise with other disciplines (Electricians, Architects) to ensure the overall product meets expectations of the client, as well as regulatory bodies (e.g. the planning authority). When a large system is being proposed and specified, a BA will liaise with other disciplines (Technical and Business Architects, etc) to ensure the overall product meets the expectation of the client, as well as sticking to organisational standards.

 

Now clearly there are differences.  A plumbing engineer might well end up delivering the solution by drilling into walls and laying the physical pipes.  A BA works on abstracted models; we draw the pipes but we don’t lay them.  However, it’s an interesting analogy and one I’ll be experimenting with.

Overall, I think analogies are useful in helping stakeholders to understand the BA role.  Analogies help to explain our work in concrete terms that stakeholders are familiar with, and help to aide understanding early on in project engagements.

 

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Comments

  1. Hi Adrian. Great article! I went to a meeting with a few people last night and somebody asked them what I did for a job. I stated that I was a consultant who provided business analysis and helped organisations to be more efficient and productive, eliminating waste, etc. A friend of mine at the meeting, whom I have known for many years, but had not seen for a while, piped up saying: “I always thought you were a plumber, in an organisational sense.” He then started to count down similar items as in the items in the table of your article. This got me thinking. – So, this morning I decided to google ‘What is an organisational plumber?’ and it came up with your article (the only bit of info that I found relevant to my query). – Maybe next time somebody askes me what I do for a job I will simple answer that I am an ‘Organisational Plumber’ and deal with the resulting reaction and discussion. It’s worth a go.

  2. Good analogy. The only problem in IT is that the concept of plumbing has already been assumed by the network guys who have referred to the “pipes” that carry the data around the systems as “plumbing” and themselves as “plumbers”. As for other analogies, I wrote an article fro BA Times called “The Business Internist” in which I use the analogy of the business analyst as that particular discipline of medical practitioner.

  3. Michelle Swoboda says

    Great article and I love the analogy!

  4. A great article Adrian, totally unexpected analogy need visionary mind to find the similarity. in spite that this analogy might be considered insulting in the 3rd world as plumber considered as a low level profession, but actually I believe it highly describes the our case as BA, but i do really feel embarrassed that how come we as BA’s cannot describe what we can do to the business unless we do make such analogy…? To make myself more clear.. If we look at the project manager profession I believe these guys need no analogy to describe what they do to the business … in spite that the question is valid.. But I believe we use analogy because up to this moment there is a leakage in the awareness with the profession of BA .. Actually i blame IIBA as main responsible for the awareness leakage.. Especially when I compare between IIBA & PMI … there are a huge different between both.. Don’t you agree?

  5. Great analogy and parallel, Adrian. The aspect of being domain agnostic and determination of the problem are two great viewpoints.

    I do feel like a plumber often times; however, sometimes there are scenarios when the leak has caused a flood and that is the time I get called in. 🙂 In my view, BAs need to be engaged at the right time to assess and evaluate a scenario or problem domain. You need to call the plumber when the leak starts. This calls for more proactive property owner perhaps. The ones who recognize that they cannot fix seemingly minor leaks. Does this resonate with you?

    The scenario gets worse when the leakage is not even detected. If something is apparent its easy to fix; but, if there are no symptoms how can we fix the problem? I believe BAs can potentially help out in this scenario as well, by proactively warning about a few things. A right engagement time can significantly reduce the process, people, and business “leakage” and can help an organization overcome key business challenges.

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