Leading Process Improvement: Five Secrets of Success
‘If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing.’
W. Edwards Deming
Over the past 20 years, Berlineaton has engaged with thousands of people to help them improve the effectiveness of their organizations in general, and their business processes in particular, using a process redesign focused approach: Continuous Improvement
. Before launching into any detailed redesign activity, we walk our clients through a thoughtful first step using an Organizational Effectiveness Self-Assessment
that Berlineaton has developed and tested over time. This self-assessment allows clients to identify what is working well, what needs to be improved, and then results in a prioritized improvement plan for the organization’s business improvement efforts.
In completing the Organizational Effectiveness Self-Assessment, people individually score their organization in 27 dimensions of effectiveness, which have been grouped into three theme areas: Direction, Process and People.
Interestingly, from this list of 27 dimensions of effectiveness, two almost always stand out as the ones that need the most help. These are:
"We have simple, efficient and clearly defined business processes that everyone understands and follows", and
"All steps in our processes add value, and there is no duplication or excessive red tape"
These results are telling.
Given the opportunity to pick from 27 dimensions of effectiveness criteria, hundreds of people who have completed Berlineaton’s Organizational Effectiveness Self-Assessment chose these two dimensions as the areas where their organizations need the most help. When we dug in and did more math, we saw that the selection of these two dimensions of effectiveness eclipsed the others on the list by a margin of almost two to one! A recently reported example of one such broken process is the transition program for ill and injured members of the Canadian Forces
. The overall impression we get is that most businesses are tangled in a Sargasso Sea of process inefficiency.
So what is it about so many business processes that is so broken? How should we go about leading efforts to address such a significant problem with such important dimensions of effectiveness for any type of organization? Here are five ‘secrets of success’ to pay attention to for getting better results from any process improvement initiative:
1. Emphasize ‘Doing’ over ‘Training’
The most effective business process improvement projects are those that have been launched to fix an urgent business problem that everyone recognizes as frustrating. Given the chance to remove the burr currently under their saddles, most people will jump into the improvement effort with both feet, then learn about how to do it along the way.
We understand that you may need a few staff, or consultants like Berlineaton, with some formal training and experience in how to do the type of work involved, but initiatives that begin with organization-wide ‘process improvement training’ almost always fail to deliver on their promises. Why? Because the classroom is too far away from the coalface, or desk top as the case may be and, despite what others might tell you, process improvement is not ‘rocket surgery’. People already spend a lot time working out kinks in their various business processes so have the confidence that your people already know about 80% of what they need to, then just get on with it.
2. Involve Everyone
When everyone is engaged in solution making, the project always goes faster and better. ‘Everyone’ includes customers and suppliers, of course. Projects that are primarily driven by one person, or a small, ‘elite team’ in an ivory tower somewhere, will usually fail for three reasons:
Most people not being engaged in the process won’t trust it and can become active resisters
These days most processes are incredibly broad and complex and no individual or small team has the breadth and depth of knowledge or experience to fix them without help
Things can move so fast that, before the redesign can be rolled out, the business – and the problems - have changed
Don’t treat change management as an afterthought or a box to be ‘checked off’ at the end of a project. It’s too late then. Get people from all levels involved at the very start, and continue to engage with them throughout the life of a project. That way you will emerge with a product that everyone understands and, more importantly, treats as their own.
3. Streamline the Right Things
The best process improvement results are achieved when delivered in alignment with your organizational strategy. Too often, people do an excellent job of improving the wrong things.
Why does this happen?
Usually, because they are working hard to fix things that they find annoying or frustrating. If you discover a process that is frustrating, it pays to spend some time thinking about how it lines up with your higher level plans and, if it doesn’t, then just adjourn it without wasting anymore of your valuable time. Of course, this assumes that you have a valid, current strategic plan to work from. If not, building one should be your first step.
4. It’s not all about IT
Everyone knows that information technology is a marvelous tool for introducing higher levels of efficiency in any business. However, as Bill Gates notes:
“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
Simply put: use a process improvement project to inform a subsequent IT project, not the other way around or you might just create a whole new range of problems you didn’t have before the project. We have seen many projects, costing millions of dollars, fail to deliver on their expected results simply because they have failed to get this simple sequencing right.
Usually the primary reason organizations tend to go to an IT solution first is time and overconfidence. They think that quickly implementing a new system will be a faster and cheaper solution and so much better than the current process that people will automatically jump on board. However, we believe that it’s more important to go slower now, ‘get your ducks in a line’ first, in order to go faster later… especially as it relates to any IT build.
5. Be Bold
If you are experiencing enough process pain to cause you to lead an improvement effort of some kind, don’t spend your time rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs. Get all hands on deck from the moment the pain strikes, then find and hit the biggest hole in your organization’s ship, fast, and together. If you lead this well the first time, ideally, more and more people in your business will develop the skills, confidence and teamwork required to do it with or without you over the long term.