In our professional lives, we follow set processes for almost everything we do. This is true for all of our most important tasks: recruiting a new hire, closing a deal, setting up a marketing campaign, and handling customer complaints.
But do these processes actually serve us well?
Think about it: do we ever really spend time evaluating these processes? And, if not, are we sure we’re not missing opportunities to improve the way we work?
Inefficient processes create confusion and cause delays. For example, poor communication holds up projects and slow response times frustrate clients
Fortunately, there’s a solution: business process improvement.
For decades, effective processes have turned companies into industry leaders and dreamers into icons. Imagine how these systems could transform your business.
Let’s find out.
What is Process Improvement?
In 1990, Michael Hammer, was a professor of computer science at MIT. Hammer was deeply troubled by the state of most companies and he knew exactly how to fix the problem: process improvement.
Hammer published his ideas on “business process reengineering” in the Harvard Business Review. By improving their processes, companies would be able to win market share and improve profits, Hammer said.
The Economist called it the “biggest business idea of 1990s”. Before long, 80% of Fortune 500 companies were using Hammer’s theories to drive improved business processes.
Now, the concept of reengineering attracted criticism. Many analysts pointed to the fact that many companies achieved Hammer’s goals through mass layoffs.
Hammer, though, was clear that layoffs were never the point of process improvement. And his ideas provided the foundation for process improvement as we know it today.
Although Hammer brought the system into the modern workplace, companies have always been looking for new ways to improve their processes.
At the start of the 20th century, Henry Ford had a bold vision: he wanted to make it possible for everyone to own a car.
To do this, he knew he needed to reduce costs. And when Ford introduced process improvement techniques like the moving assembly line and mass production, he made that vision a reality for millions of Americans. His secret to success? Ford said his guiding principle was to “improve manufacturing processes”.
Today, the principles of process improvement are used across industries and by companies of all sizes. For example, research in healthcare has investigated how process improvement could promote home dialysis. In software, a process improvement program helped a team improve their unit’s bottom line and culture.
The beauty of process improvement is you can start small and you can start right now.
Process Improvement Techniques
An analysis of process improvement projects shows the goals are typically the same:
- Reduce waste
- Enhance quality
- Improve the user experience
Today, there are several popular process improvement techniques and we’ll summarize the main ones here.
- Kaizen: Kaizen, a Japanese business philosophy, is based on continuous improvement. In organizations with a Kaizen approach, process improvement is a collective effort; all workers adopt this mindset, sharing ideas for process improvement.
- Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle, also called the Deming Circle: Developed by quality control expert, W. Edwards Deming, this four-step plan begins with planning for change (Plan) and testing the processes with small changes (Do). Next, study your results (Check). During the final stage (Act), improve the process based on your findings from the earlier stages.
- Six Sigma: Inspired by the Deming Cycle, Six Sigma was pioneered by Motorola engineer and scientist, Bill Smith. Its members use a Karate ranking system to work through their way through the program, starting with a white belt. The goal is to reduce errors and process variation. In one case study, a contractor was experiencing payment delays. Using Six Sigma, the contractor identified communication gaps between different departments, like sales, operations, and clients. As a result, they revamped their project management process.
No matter the technique you use, the objectives should be to reduce waste and increase efficiency.
Getting Started with Process Improvement
If you’re ready to establish a system for process improvement, there’s a few guidelines to help you on your journey.
Here’s four pointers to get you started with process improvement:
- What Will You Improve? Evaluate the process you’re trying to improve. What is the purpose of the process? Speak to the team members directly involved. Map out the tasks and responsible employees. Consider the biggest challenges and opportunities.
- How Will You Improve? Determine the measures you can put in place to improve the process.
- How will you measure success? Decide on the indicators you will use to determine whether or not your process improvement initiative is working.
- Analyze. Monitor the outcome of your changes.
Finally, the ongoing success of your process improvement strategies will depend on your commitment to continuous improvement. Toyota, for instance, gained an edge because the company prioritized slow, steady improvements. As a result, Toyota leapt ahead of its competitors.
Process Improvement Tips to Guide Your Strategy
We’ve collected a few of the best practices for process automation, backed by experts and research.
Put the Customer First
You know customers are crucial to your business.
When Hammer set out to revive struggling companies, he emphasized that a customer focus needed to be at the heart of process improvement.
“Walk in your customers’ shoes,” encouraged Hammer.
Draw on your own research to gain a deeper understanding of your customers. For instance, study customer interviews, customer support tickets, and CRM data. One obvious source of information is your company’s customer support team.
They’re on the frontline every day and will have unique insight into your customer. Determine which processes frustrate customers the most and design a solution to fix those problems. It may be something as simple as publishing a FAQ on your site.
Bring Employees into the Process
We spoke about Kaizen’s employee focus, and the truth is that excluding team members can lead to a lot of unnecessary frustration.
On the other hand, engaging employees and letting them make meaningful contributions to the process improvement strategy is a powerful way to make effective improvements.
For starters, they know the existing processes best. Plus, the employees will execute the process improvement strategy. As a result, they’ll be able to flag problems with proposed ideas.
Get Management Support
Before you embark on your process improvement program, you need to get management excited about your initiative. And for management to approve the change, you have to build a strong business case.
Here are pointers for getting management buy in:
- Describe the need for process improvement
- Detail the problem it solves
- Break the plan down into small steps
- Present the business results
As part of your strategy, aim to standardize processes. The benefits of uniform processes are better productivity and quality. For the best results, document your processes in an easily accessible workspace. You can, for example, develop an internal wiki.
When you pair tested processes with the right technology, you immediately give teams time for more critical work. An added benefit is that automation removes human error from routine tasks.
Consider the workflow for signing documents, for instance. A paper-based workflow means printing, signing, scanning, and emailing.
Of course, this can be easily automated. Once you do, you remove the need for all of that administration. Tools like eversign also let you add tags to the document, so signees never miss important information.
Examples of Process Automation
Chances are, you already have a few ideas for process improvement projects.
Here’s a few more process improvement examples:
By taking a continuous improvement approach, you’re always getting better. For example, many tech companies constantly listen to customer feedback, adding new features or improving existing features.
It’s no secret that customer service can make or break your business. One example here is customer communication. Is it easy for your customers to reach you? Can they solve simple queries by themselves, e.g. resetting passwords?
Are communication silos hurting your business? Perhaps your team might benefit from a team communication app like Twist or Slack. If projects are falling behind because of poor communication, project management software like Asana or Basecamp may be the answer.
The benefit of clearly documented and standardized processes is that there’s less need for back and forth between employees and management.
With proper guidelines in place, employees can take the next step with confidence, removing the need to wait for approval and delaying a process as a result. Once you eliminate that kind of bottleneck, your entire workflow will be more efficient.
Getting Started with Process Improvement
We hope we’ve given you some useful tools and tips for business process improvement. And remember, you don’t need to start with a grand, overwhelming process improvement program.
By committing to small, but steady process improvements all the time, you’ll get better every day, gradually moving further ahead in your industry.
Over to you. How will you build processes that set your company up for lasting success?