Understanding Process Improvement:
Definition, Fundamentals, and Implementation

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.

process improvement doesn't have to be difficult

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

As an example of process improvement, consider customer onboarding, which is performed to teach a new customer how to interact with your business, how to request support, and so on.

A common challenge in customer onboarding is inundating customers with so much information that many of them struggle to digest it all and end up ignoring much of it. This is often caused by sending all customers the same onboarding information, even if not all of it is relevant for them.

Because some customers won’t read everything you send them, and others will, the process yields inconsistent results. The process is also inefficient because resources are wasted delivering information to customers who don’t need it.

One way to improve this process would be to tailor it so that different types of customers receive different types of information. This way, each customer would receive less information and would be more likely to review it completely. At the same time, the process will consume fewer resources because each customer will receive only the information he or she needs, without extraneous materials that costs time and money to distribute.

You could also take advantage of a workflow management platform to codify and optimize the customer onboarding process. You could then customize the process with variations for different types of customers and automatically send each type of customer the correct materials. Setting up a workflow in the platform would also allow you to clearly delineate which team member was responsible for each customer and would transparently show where each customer was in the onboarding process.

Benefits of process improvement for your business


No matter what your process improvement methodology entails, an effective strategy will deliver several key business benefits:

● The ability to complete processes in less time. One of the most fundamental benefits of process improvement is a reduction in the time it takes to complete tasks through streamlining and reducing the number of steps involved.

● Higher quality products and services. Whether it’s due to enhanced employee performance or better direction for working through a process, process improvement leads directly to better results.

● Improved customer satisfaction. Process improvement leads to better customer outcomes across the board. More responsive customer service, delivering the highest quality products, and hitting your deadlines: it’s all possible with process improvement.

● Increased transparency and alignment. Understanding and clarifying all stages in a process ensures that all your team members know their responsibilities, and it makes it easy for them to share information and collaborate efficiently.

● Reduced waste. Cutting out redundant steps or entire processes that consume valuable resources is an easy and effective way to ensure you’re wasting as little time and money as possible.

process improvement has many benefits

Steps to implementing process improvement


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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:

● Why does the process exist? Taking a high level view of the goal of the process can help clarify the results you’re looking to get, and it can also indicate whether the process might be redundant.

● Do all the parts fit? Look at each step in the process closely to identify inefficiencies. For example, the process may have unnecessary steps that can be removed, or it may be possible to perform some steps at the same time rather than sequentially.

● What do the numbers say? Identifying and analyzing important metrics allows you to focus on those that are below par and the processes that relate to them.

● Which parts of the process cost the most? Find the steps in the process that have the greatest effect on your bottom line, as improving those is likely to be impactful.

● Ask why the results aren’t there. For processes that are underperforming, dig in and determine the underlying causes. This can reveal potential solutions that may have otherwise escaped your notice.


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 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

No matter how efficient your processes are today, there is almost always room for improving them further. The healthiest businesses are those that constantly reevaluate their processes and look for ways to improve them even more. In addition, you should always be striving to identify processes that haven’t yet received attention — such as those that are not performed very often — and determine whether they could be improved as well. Although improving the highest value processes yields the greatest returns, practicing continuous improvement requires addressing all processes over time.

Process improvement techniques


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.

These techniques are helpful for providing some perspective on process improvement, but you don’t need to choose one of them as the be-all and end-all of your process improvement strategy. The best methodology for your business depends on a variety of factors. You should aim to keep process improvement as hassle-free and straightforward as possible, without getting bogged down in concerns about specific methodological rules.

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.

Pipefy’s work management platform allows you to map and improve almost any business process. Whether you’re seeking to improve processes around customer support, accounts payable, or even recruitment strategy, Pipefy has you covered. See for yourself by registering for a free trial.

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