What is Your North Star in Business Process Improvement?

Before you begin improving a business process, spend some time on step 2 of the 10 steps to business process improvement because this step helps to guide your work. While the North Star is not necessarily the brightest star in the sky, you can rely on it as a true gauge of “north” and travelers have historically used it to guide them for centuries. What will guide you in your process improvement effort?

In step 2, you identified your customer (or client) and what they want from the business process. You also defined how to measure the success of your business process. These measurements of success should support the customer needs you identified and you can use this information as your North Star. While you might also define metrics that support stakeholder needs or internal business efficiency, make certain to keep the customer need(s) as your North Star. Directionally, you cannot go wrong.

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Is There a Quick Fix to Business Process Improvement?

When a process does not work, you may hope it will get better on its own or the problem will simply go away. Can you put out the fire and move on to the next problem? I wish I could say yes, but unfortunately….well, you already know the answer.

There is no quick fix to improving business processes. Unless you spend the time uncovering the root cause nothing will change. You may temporarily stop the pain, but it will not last for long. When you find yourself short on time or employees, the quick fix becomes so attractive. Try to avoid becoming a fire fighter though.

If you followed the nine steps to business process improvement, do not forget the tenth step – drive continuous improvement. Only by incorporating this step can you ensure your business process stays relevant to what your customers want. Putting a continuous improvement plan in place will keep you on track and always ahead of the curve.

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How to Kill a Business Process Improvement Effort

Ever think about how to kill a business process improvement effort? It is really very easy – simply blame the employees involved.

When a department stops performing at the desired level, ask what has changed. Have customer needs increased, do you have changing priorities, has the competition for your product or service increased, or is it another business impact? Customer needs have a way of increasing over time – the bar continues to rise as you meet existing needs. Priorities continually change as the business stabilizes or evolves. Products and services have to change to keep pace with the competition.

If you start a business process improvement effort by blaming the employees who support the process, the finger pointing can easily go both ways and nobody wins. Sure you may have a problem employee, so deal with him or her. Most employees, though, want to do a good job.

Involve employees who work in the process in the improvement effort and let them know you are not pointing your finger in their direction, but rather looking at how you can collectively improve the process to keep customers engaged and committed to your product/service line.

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Involving Other Departments in Business Process Improvement

If you work in a single department like human resource, finance, or operations you may feel restricted in a business process improvement effort to areas where your department has responsibility. You may feel this way because you have tunnel vision or because you do not feel you have the authority to expand outside of your organizational boundaries.

In the first case, you may have worked in your department so long you can no longer “see” things differently because of limited experiences or you feel caught in the trap of day-to-day routines. In this case, try some mind exercises before beginning an improvement effort. For some ideas try these ideas.

In the second case, think about the handoffs your department makes to other departments and talk with them about how to improve the handoff. Most colleagues want to do a good job and, as long as they look good to their management, they will happily work with you to improve the process. Remember to sell “what’s in it for them.”

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Is Technology the Silver Bullet in Business Process Improvement?

If you follow my blog, you know my answer to this question: Should technology drive the process or should the process drive the technology?

Many companies who focus on process improvement look to technology as the silver bullet. They immediately look for how technology can improve the process. Consultants help promote this idea because so many large consulting companies want their share of this huge business potential.

However, when you start with technology, you lose sight of potential lower cost alternatives. Begin by understanding the steps involved in the process, so you can look to remove roadblocks and non-value added steps (steps the customer does not care about nor wants to pay for if they knew about the step). Use technology after you implement process changes.

Think about the people involved in the process and how you can adjust what employees and vendors do. Evaluating the efficiency of people involved in delivering the results of the process adds to the people/process/technology puzzle. Use technology after you implement people changes.

All three components (people, process, and technology) play a role in improving a business process; just save the cost of implementing technology until after you have the most efficient process possible.

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Optimizing the Business Process

Do you remember the work of Peter Senge? He discussed systems thinking, which is the “discipline for seeing wholes.” When you hear colleagues criticize optimizing parts of a business process while sub-optimizing the whole, you should recognize the criticism is directed at departmental process improvement efforts. Is that fair?

Senge is right; your colleagues may be right. Applying Senge’s conceptual framework to a business process highlights the impact each activity has on the “whole” because it helps you to work across organizational boundaries and understand the downstream impacts.

The challenge for many individuals though is the lack of authority to work at the enterprise level (or across organizational boundaries). While the value to performing business process improvement company-wide cannot be diminished, the frequent lack of a process owner can stop this effort. Remember my earlier posts about process owners?

So, what do you do? Nothing?

You can still work on improving your department’s business processes – just make certain to follow the 10 steps to BPI. When you perform step 2, you will clearly understand what your customer or client cares about; and when you perform step 5, you bring in a cross-functional perspective to your work by talking with stakeholders to make sure your changes work for their department. Whenever you identify a handoff in your improved process, include the downstream receiver of the output in step 5. By performing this step, you focus on the end-to-end process, which in turn helps you to optimize the whole.

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Conversation with Kevin Eikenberry

Listen to my conversation discussing process improvement with Kevin Eikenberry at http://www.susanpagebooks.com/index.html

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