Most leaders and managers would likely admit that all of their organizations’ processes don’t work perfectly. In rare best-case scenarios, there may be only a few minor tweaks needed to optimize workflow and productivity. But, in many other instances, a deeper need exists to review “how we do things” and implement major changes.
So why don’t more organizations revise their processes more regularly — especially as technology continues to evolve so rapidly? The short answer is: Because change hurts. It slows things down; people get confused and sometimes irritated; benefits don’t materialize immediately.
But these downsides aren’t a given, and process improvement doesn’t have to be painful. By taking a measured approach, you can not only “do things better,” but also learn a lot along the way.
Do we have to?
If you fear the challenges of improving your organizational processes, you’re not alone. Many leaders reflexively ask “Do we have to?” when it comes to changing how things are done. They don’t want to rock the boat — especially in competitive business environments.
Yet there are valid reasons to undertake a process improvement initiative. And it’s generally better to do so proactively rather than reactively. In other words, you’ll likely be happier fixing issues in your own time rather than waiting for a crisis to force change. Some telltale signs that you should get started on updating processes include:
- Sluggish productivity; you’re just not getting as much done as you believe you should,
- Noticeable backlogs; you’ve got orders or projects in the pipeline but you can’t get to them, and
- Chaos (or something close to it); management is constantly fielding employee complaints, workers are inventing their own “workarounds” to complete tasks, new hires take a long time to get comfortable with procedures.
Again, the severity of process breakdowns or disconnects can vary from organization to organization. Often, relatively well-run organizations can be the slowest to change because the shortcomings of their processes are so subtle and hard to detect. Yet those very shortcomings could be hurting profitability, driving up expenses or driving good employees to leave.
Where does it begin?
As mentioned, if undertaken properly, process improvement needn’t be excessively difficult or crippling to productivity. The effort must start slowly with an overall assessment of the organization and a careful investigation of the process (or processes) in question.
Among the worst things you can do is jump in and start tinkering with the “nuts and bolts” of a process without fully understanding its strategic purpose. In essence, you want to understand the beginning, middle and end of the process and then target concrete objectives for improvement.
You can take a number of measures to obtain the necessary information. Interviews with everyone involved in a given process typically reveal precisely what happens on a daily basis. You can also hold process-focused workshops for a collaborative discussion and develop analytical surveys to gather minute data.
A paper trail is critical, too — even if many of the formerly paper documents are now digitized. What does your employee manual say about the process? Do you have up-to-date and well-written training materials? Are tracking forms and invoices accurate and easy to understand? Questions such as these can help you learn a lot about both the process at hand and your organization as a whole.
Whatever the approach, you’ve got to track a process from its origins through each department it touches to the final end product or service. Doing so may include speaking to outside vendors and soliciting customer satisfaction data as well.
The information-gathering process is critical, but so is what happens next — that is, assimilating the data and applying it to a measurably improved process. To accomplish this objective, various tools can be applied.
A “process map” can visually track the process from beginning to end. Process maps are, essentially, the flowcharts you may have encountered in school. Written reports can also be generated to describe the process and its objectives. Think of this as sort of a journaling process, whereby the act of writing out how a process should work can reveal why it’s going wrong or at least how it can be improved.
When you’re ready to implement process improvements, a carefully executed approach is also very important. Many organizations find success in forming a specific process-improvement team to conduct the investigation and develop an action plan for rolling out necessary changes.
Part of the rollout should include a testing procedure, whereby process revisions are “live tested” in a contained environment to get a better idea of how initial results will look. This will enable you to tweak those last-minute foibles and improve the odds that employees will buy in to the revised process.
Who might be of assistance?
We hope you know the answer to this question! Performance Dimensions Group specializes in helping to create high-performance organizations. And a big part of that is assessing and, to the extent necessary, re-engineering organizational processes for optimal results. Please contact us here