Process improvement is more than knowing there’s a better way.
Most line of business executives can identify when something’s broken, either by themselves or with help from their teams. But it’s another matter entirely to improve the process in a way that aligns with overall business objectives, integrates well with existing systems, is fully visible, and improves productivity and other essential outcomes. Here, we explore 10 questions business leaders must ask before taking action.
1. What defines process improvement success?
“Most people spend more time and energy going around problems than trying to solve them” – Henry Ford
It’s critical to improve an individual process not for the process’ sake, but because it helps to solve a business problem. Often, when your constituents say they’re unhappy with something, they haven’t really explored the root of the problem and what can be done to solve it effectively through a business process.
The main strategy here is to openly discuss your constituents’ core priorities and pains. Gather their input not just on processes they don’t like, but ones that they DO like. This will facilitate everyone’s understanding of why certain processes exist in the first place and the issues they were designed to alleviate. Once you’ve identified the business problem at the heart of this particular process, you must also identify what the process will do to address the problem, the parameters of the improvement and/or solution, and how you will measure success. On this last point, process improvements should be quantifiable and easy to map to common business metrics.
2. How can your process have the biggest impact?
If you’ve completed the activities above, you have likely achieved alignment between the organization’s overall objectives and the process that’s being improved upon. You should also ensure that the new process can evolve fluidly with business strategy and that it offers numerous opportunities for decision makers to track progress toward major goals.
As you can see, this type of thinking on process improvement leaves little room for the silo mentality. As Digital Clarity Group analyst Connie Moore succinctly put it while at Forrester: “While it’s possible to tackle projects within a single business function, usually high-value business processes belong with a larger, cross-functional way of working. Getting organizations to overlay their functional thinking and org charts with a process mindset is a challenge that often requires prying 100 years of crusted-over work patterns and practices from executives who have never imagined any other way.” So yes, if you want your process to have a larger impact, you have to talk to people outside your department.
3. How should the new business process be designed?
This is where business process modeling, otherwise known as BPM, comes into play. According to Creately.com, BPM is a mechanism for describing and communicating the current or intended future state of a business process. It’s a means of representing the steps, participants, and decision logic in business processes. By doing this in a formal way, you enable solid analysis and further improvement of these processes.
BPM is commonly a diagram representing a sequence of activities. This diagram shows events, actions and links or connection points, in the sequence from end to end. It’s often cross-functional, including both IT and people processes and combining the work and documentation of multiple groups in the organization. People, teams, and departments feature in BPM in terms of what they do, to what, when, and for what reasons – especially when different possibilities or options exist. BPM software is often used to apply its methods more efficiently.
4. How do we put together the right process improvement team?
This takes careful consideration and understanding of the people resources available to you. In an ideal world, you want every process improvement team member to have both capability and enthusiasm (i.e. they CAN do the work and they WANT to do the work). These core team members will be responsible for helping you evangelize the changes within the organization, and early and frequent communication about what’s happening, why, and how it impacts particular groups, is essential to building a support network.
Once you have the team in place, sit down with the members (in-person if you can), reiterate your purpose, success parameters, and resources, and make sure people understand their own roles as well as everyone else’s. If there are questions or conflicts, it’s best to address them now. Work together to create a code of conduct, as this will assist with focus both inside and outside of team meetings. Take the time to establish rapport between your team members, particularly if they haven’t worked together a lot before. Informal or social gatherings will cement the team camaraderie and trust that is necessary to sustain commitment through the difficult times.
5. How do we ensure buy-in?
Any significant process improvement requires an executive-level sponsor. As we’ve said here, the primary role of a sponsor is to provide ownership of and oversight over an initiative intended to accomplish a major business goal (i.e. your process). An effective sponsor is placed high enough in the organization to smooth the way for timely decision making and appropriate resource allocation.
Sponsors understand why and how this process is critical to business operations and the relationship it has with other parts of the company. They can persuade the higher-ups that the process is worth supporting and secure and sustain organizational commitment when more pressing issues threaten its resources.
How do you get a sponsor? It’s all about the business case, and specifically the financials. At the highest level of the organization, said Connie Moore, only two phrases typically resonate: 1) how much revenue will it create? and 2) how much profit will it add to the bottom line? If you can answer these questions without resorting to function speak or tech talk, you are likely to get their attention.
6. How do we work with IT?
For process improvement to be seamless, IT and the business need to be closely aligned. As Quickbase CIO Deb Gildersleeve believes strongly, IT and business users have to partner on the citizen development process to best work and improve processes.
“If the business isn’t involved, IT can only drive so much change,” Gildersleeve said in IDG’s recent report, Empowering Business Users for the Next Era of Digital Transformation. “You need to make sure everyone knows [business-led] development is a company initiative, that everyone plays their part, and that it doesn’t happen in disconnected silos.”
Organizations can leverage a Center of Excellence approach to enable effective process improvement and digital transformation. By creating cross-functional teams focused on process improvement, your teams can build the foundation for success.
7. How can we avoid shelfware?
On the topic of working with IT, the last thing you want to do is create a technology solution that no one uses and ends up doing nothing for your process – or worse – damaging it. Avoid this by making sure you and your IT partners “know what you don’t know.” As Ronald Schmelzer, who was senior analyst at ZAPThink, pointed out in his article for TechTarget: “Often the person who is responsible for creating the representation of the process either doesn’t know all the details of the business process at hand in sufficient depth, is not up-to-date with the current state of how a business process is actually working in the company and/or doesn’t have knowledge of the whole process from end-to-end.”
“As a result, most business process exercises often produce little more than shelfware – that is, they end up creating nothing more than writing on paper that represents either the business process as it used to be or the business process as it’s supposed to be, but never the business process as it actually is or will be.”
Once your solution is ready for prime time, don’t drop the ball. Your IT folks are bound to have guidance for encouraging more widespread adoption among your constituents. Listen to them.
8. How do we overcome organizational resistance?
The good news is, if you encounter resistance to your process improvements, it means you are undertaking meaningful change. Remember that human beings by nature don’t like or appreciate change and will rail against it. The important thing is to ensure that your proposed changes are implemented as smoothly as possible through careful planning, adequate resource allocation, strong sponsorship, managed expectations, and continuous communication of benefits and progress.
Your efforts to infuse the culture with positive energy around your new process will hopefully work for most, but there will still be a few stubborn detractors. It’s important not to dismiss these individuals out of hand. Instead, examine their concerns objectively because they might be on to something. By working with resistors instead of against them, your process is more likely to be successful in the long-run.
9. How can our process be more visible?
A big danger of process improvement is allowing activities to become decentralized and disorganized. You simply have more important things to do than spend hours tracking down status updates and compiling data from disparate sources.
In a nutshell, process visibility is a methodology that allows you to organize and share consistent content with a variety of constituents with different informational needs. The specific data and the level of detail you provide depend on the constituent. With process visibility, you can easily see how your process is impacting the activities at the top of the organization, within your department, and within your team and individuals completing isolated tasks.
Software platforms like Quickbase make it easier to find areas of waste, identify bottlenecks, and optimize workflows. Reporting features facilitate your efforts to tell a coherent, meaningful story, and to widely distribute the successes and metrics that matter. They also help you establish a common communication protocol so that everyone is on the same page.
10. If I don’t want to be involved in this process forever, how can I transition it?
The process of transferring the responsibility of a particular task from one person to another is called a handoff, and the answer to this one rather depends on whether yours will be assumed by someone on your immediate team, or by another group. If it’s the latter, process consultant Ian James recommended a structured approach. His handoff agreement worksheet is designed to cover the essential elements of a successful handoff arrangement and is worth a download.
James cautioned that you probably won’t get a handoff agreement right the first time and that you should always be willing to fine-tune. “By including a plan for regular reviews in the handoff agreement, you are acknowledging that there is room for improvement,” he said. “Players are more likely to be invested in the process if they feel that their input is sought after and considered valuable.”
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