Alongside your people and your product, processes are what drive your business. Business improvement hinges on process improvement, and business failure is often the result of relying on processes that are disorganized, wasteful, inaccurate, or inconsistent.
The idea of improving processes for your team might sound intimidating, but it really shouldn’t be. We sometimes assume that process improvement requires a special skill set or certain credentials, but that’s not the case. In fact, the person best positioned to improve any process is someone familiar with the current process, its limitations, and an idea of what the ideal process should be.
If this sounds like you, then you’ve come to the right place. In this article, you’ll learn how to recognize what an efficient process looks like, as well as how to begin optimizing processes of your own.
What is process improvement?
Process improvement refers to the practice of finding ways to make processes faster, more efficient, more reliable, or otherwise better than they currently are.
Process improvement is important because every business relies on processes to power their operations. Whether it’s hiring and onboarding a new employee, issuing or receiving an invoice, or fixing problems in IT systems, there is a process behind everything your business does. If that process takes a long time to complete, requires more resources than it should, or produces inconsistent results, it makes your business operations less effective.
Process improvement example: customer onboarding
Benefits of process improvement for your business
No matter what your process improvement methodology entails, an effective strategy will deliver several key business benefits:
Steps to implementing process improvement
Approaches to process improvement vary according to business needs and the process in question, but at a high level, process improvement is quite simple. It centers on identifying and acting on opportunities for making a process more efficient.
Step 1: Identify the processes that need improvement
The first step is to identify the processes you want to improve. You should focus on those that occur most frequently or that are most critical to your business, as improving those will deliver the greatest benefits.
There are a few practices that make identifying processes easier. Consider appointing someone as your “process expert,” whose role is to become intimately familiar with all your organization’s processes. Without a single person — or committee — that knows all your processes inside and out, you won’t be able to get a complete picture of how they interact and the relative importance of each.
You should also engage with key stakeholders in every department to discover their perspective on which processes could benefit most from optimization. Finally, establish criteria for sorting and prioritizing processes that make sense for your company, like which processes are performed most often or which carry the greatest risk for your business if they break down.
Step 2: Determine areas for optimization and develop possible solutions
After you’ve selected a process, evaluate it to find areas where it can be improved. Identify the slowest, most inconsistent, or most costly elements of the process, and assess whether there is an opportunity to make them better. Business process modeling, which involves the creation of a diagram to visualize all steps in a process, is one of the best ways to see which stages of the process are ripe for improvement.
Consider asking some of the following questions when determining how to optimize your processes:
Asking questions like these, and pursuing them to their conclusion, can reveal the reasons that lie behind process shortcomings and show how to correct them.
For instance, employees may complain that expense reimbursements are taking too long to complete. You create a process model using a workflow management tool and examine each step of the expense reimbursement process in turn. When you get to the review step, you find that the data shows that there is a significant time gap between filing the expense reimbursement request and approval.
Your HR team explains this by noting that recent cutbacks have led to them prioritizing other mission-critical issues above reimbursement requests. You’ve identified the issue in the process, and you can now evaluate a range of possible solutions, from raising the priority of approving expense reimbursement requests — if the other HR issues can afford to wait — to exploring an automated process for approval.
Step 3: Test proposed improvements
After you’ve identified areas for optimization, you can test the proposed improvements. Run tests with the personnel who perform the process most often to determine whether the theoretical positive effects of the improvements are born out in practice. In the example above, you could test out dedicating a single HR team member to approving reimbursement requests for a week and see the results before committing to fully automating the expense reimbursement process.
Step 4: Practice continuous process improvement
There are a number of process improvement techniques that businesses sometimes use as a guide for their approach to process improvement. Popular examples include Kaizen, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, and Agile.
Some of these processes, like Six Sigma, focus heavily on data-driven change. Others such as Total Quality Management and Agile are more qualitative and emphasize the importance of building a business culture that is committed to improvement. Still others, most notably Kaizen, treat improvement as an ongoing process that should happen every day rather than taking an incremental approach to improvement.
Automating process improvement with the right software
Automating processes with workflow management software leads directly to more efficient processes. Simple processes like sending out emails can be fully automated with workflow management platforms, while others can be partially automated. For example, you can set up triggers so that when one type of event — such as a product being shipped — occurs, another — such as generating and sending an invoice for the product — follows automatically.
You can also easily produce and customize workflow diagrams using a workflow management platform, rather than laboriously creating them by hand or in another application that wasn’t designed for it. By mapping and codifying workflows in the platform, you can ensure that your results are more consistent, as everyone will be able to easily find and follow the same standardized procedure.
Workflow management software provides built-in metrics, logging, and reporting options that improve transparency by allowing you to track actions and performance across your team. It also provides a centralized location for viewing and managing all your processes, keeping all team members aligned and aware of their responsibilities.
This relationship between a company and its partners has many benefits, but it also introduces some risks.