Optimized processes can offer big returns and many organizations have numerous untapped opportunities for efficiency and profitability. But, how do you identify those opportunities and improve your processes to make big gains? Read on to find out.
First, let’s cover off some of the top challenges you’ll face on your process improvement journey:
Complacency from staff and, especially leaders. Feeling resistance to change and/or a desire to remain in a comfort zone is a very normal thing for us all. However, complacency in a business will close the door to progress, or at least cause the hinges on that door to seize up.
Fear of disruption to operations. While it is true that there may be impacts to operations during the implementation of a process improvement initiative, a well-thought out initiative will take this into account and plan for minimal disruption. In cases where zero disruption is not possible, it is very important to have a solid disruption mitigation and response plan.
The lack of resource availability – human and/or capital – inhibits the success of process improvement initiatives. Many process improvement initiatives will take time, money, and resources. I won’t sugar-coat that or try to deny it. Think of process improvement as an investment in your company. You’re expecting a return on your investment, year-over-year, for initiating and making a (hopefully) one-time change.
It costs money and it could disrupt operations? Maybe we shouldn’t fix what ain’t broke and just leave it alone. We’ll be fine, right…? Well, hey, dinosaurs didn’t enable any process improvement initiatives and they’re doing just fine, right…?
In all seriousness, process improvement doesn’t have to be a complex and laborious undertaking, even when you’re starting from scratch. Keep it simple, focus on efficiency first, and use these tips to improve your processes today.
In order to make improvements to your process, you will need to be able to identify opportunities for improvement. We’ll begin with observation.
Go observe the process activity in action. If it’s a call centre, listen in on calls. If it’s a factory assembly line, walk the floor. If it’s construction, go on-site. You get the idea. Be present and be observant.
When observing the process in action, it is important to try not to interfere with the activity itself. If you have questions, resist the urge to interrupt the operator. Instead, write your questions down and schedule time with the operator or a subject matter expert (SME) to have your questions answered.
Keep an eye out for efficiency opportunities and take good notes.
Quality is obviously important but sampling the outputs (product, service delivery) is a better approach to reviewing quality. For now, we’re only going with efficiency opportunities – one thing at a time.
Listen to your customers and staff members.
The voice of the customer will give you hints as to where you may find disappointments in your product or service. Determine how to change disappointment into satisfaction and your happy customers will not only return to you, but they will also spread happy vibes about your company.
Simple surveys are a great way to solicit customer feedback, especially if you entice them with giveaways and rewards for taking the time to fill them out. Limit the number of questions, choose your questions carefully and use a number ranking system to help you sort through their answers statistically.
The staff members who work with the processes on a daily basis inherently know what’s working and what’s not. Rather than suggesting improvements to a process, many staff members will often create workarounds to keep things moving forward without “rocking the boat” or trying to change too much. Sometimes the workarounds are good ideas that need scaling, while other times the workarounds are inefficient and cause more rework.
When soliciting feedback from your staff, listen closely for points of frustration. Obtain feedback from those who you think want to make a real difference and hate it when their time is being wasted.
Remember to thank your staff for sharing their feedback and always circle back with them to let them know the results of their feedback, whether you chose to move an idea forward or not, and explain to them how you came to your decision.
Remember, if you want honest and continual feedback from your staff, they need to know that their suggestion matters. Show them that it did by taking the time to consider and decide on each suggestion, and let your staff member know why you decided to act or not act on each one.
It’s extremely unlikely that you will be working on process improvement alone. This means that you’re going to need to spend some time documenting your findings as well as documenting the process itself.
An easy-to-follow and relevant document helps the team to see the process steps in the same way.
I strongly recommend that you budget the time to properly document your process(es) upfront. This document can be used to ensure the entire team sees the process working the same way, it facilitates brainstorming activities on process improvement and you can even use the document for training new staff (or retraining existing staff).
Process documentation helps everyone see and understand the process in the same way. It also facilities root cause analysis for a broken process and provides a platform for brainstorming possible solutions.
Insufficient process documentation often results in:
- wasting your time and your team’s time
- poor process improvement decisions that may cause more harm than good
Spend a bit of time on the documentation. It will not only save you time and frustration, but you’ll be able to use it again and again in the future.
You may choose to use a visual process map, like this:
Or, a step-by-step procedure document, like this:
Choose whichever approach works better for you and your team. Do enough for it to create value in a process improvement brainstorming session and don’t overdo your documentation.
If you choose the visual map, there are a number of applications available, and these articles may help you decide: How to Choose Process Mapping or Diagramming Software and 3 Fantastic Process Mapping Alternatives to Microsoft Visio.
This is probably the most difficult thing to do accurately. But, again, keep it as simple as possible to start.
If you already have metrics in place on a daily/weekly dashboard or a monthly/quarterly report, validate which ones apply to measuring the process you may be changing, and use them. You may also want to do a quick verification exercise to ensure the metrics you have in place are still valid.
Metrics help you measure progress, or lack thereof. They can help you determine if a process improvement change was worth it. Financial metrics are ideal, but, when it comes to measuring efficiency, you can use metrics on processing cycle duration and completion times. Here are a few examples:
-call centre: Average Speed of Answer (ASA), Average Handle Time (AHT)
-service: average duration to fulfill a service request
-delivery: average time to complete a delivery
Measuring progress may not always be as simple as, “I changed A and measured B and B showed improvement, therefore, the change must be successful.” Sometimes you need additional testing to know that it was, in fact, the change in A that caused B, and not some other occurrence. However, that’s a more complex topic. We’re keeping it simple.
Note: when making efficiency improvements, keep an eye on quality metrics (if you have them in place) to ensure the level of quality is not heading downwards because efficiency is heading upwards.
Where possible, try to focus on efficiency improvements before tackling quality improvement topics. It’s not that quality is less important than efficiency, but in my experience, I’ve found that many organizations are inefficient with their existing processes and, because improving quality sometimes involves adding new steps (quality checks, new measurements, new specifications, new technology, etc.), you may often be adding additional steps to processes that already have too many steps.
My advice is to tighten up existing processes and remove any non-value add steps before introducing steps to improve quality.
If, while making efficiency improvement, you happen to improve quality at the same time, bonus for you!
Now that you have identified opportunities and documented the process for a consistent understanding of how it works, it’s time to identify possible improvements. The activity of identifying improvement opportunities can be a team activity – the more ideas on the table the better.
Here is the approach to take to identify and implement efficiency solutions:
- identify the process (maybe base it on which one may create the biggest potential efficiency gains).
- review the process (document) with the team.
- identify any non-value add or problematic steps (non-value add steps are tasks that do not contribute directly to either profitability or customer satisfaction). These can be technology or human task steps.
- review the impact of removing any non-value add steps (technically, there shouldn’t be any adverse impact if they are truly non-value add steps).
- remove the non-value add steps (this may involve communicating with staff, retraining staff, technology changes and/or updating documentation).
Monitor your relevant efficiency metric, before and after the removal of the non-value add step(s) to find out how you did! And, a friendly reminder to keep an eye on your quality metrics, as mentioned in step 4 (measure).
Remember, the goal is to increase efficiency without negatively impacting quality.
Celebrating success and rewarding your people are activities you must consider.
In the beginning, the response you receive from some of your team may be that of trepidation and uncertainty. It may also be excitement and interest for others. Tap into the good energy to create early momentum and hold good conversations with all team members to explain why you’re focusing on process improvement. If you do this right, your team, and especially the high-performers, will appreciate the interest in their work and their suggestions.
Understand that, not every process improvement initiative is going to be a great success, and not every suggestion will be a winner, at least in the early stages. However, as you get better at this activity, so will your track record of success.
Choose celebrations that are fitting for the results, but do celebrate. Small steps are still progress!
If you wish for a culture of process improvement, you should also reward your people in meaningful ways. Early on, you may choose to reward your team for bringing up opportunities and suggestions. After the first year, you may decide only to reward people for suggestions that become realized efficiency or financial improvements.
One final note: keep things simple and involve your team as much as possible in the journey. Have fun making big efficiency gains!
Process Primer Consulting is here if you need more advanced and experienced process improvement support. Feel free to schedule a free consult and we’ll be happy to have coffee with you and discuss improvement opportunities catered to your business goals.
Have questions? Need more information?
Leave a comment or contact us and we’ll be happy to respond!
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