Business Process Improvement: Wring More Productivity Out of Your Key Business Processes

“A bad process will beat a good person every time.” 

So famously said quality guru W. Edwards Deming, and we agree.  We’ve seen it time and time again.

Business processes – such as your budgeting process, your new-product development process, your engineering process, etc., etc. – by definition, cut across multiple business functions, groups or divisions.  Because of this, people who share in the responsibility of making these multi-phase activities work are often isolated in their own “silos.”  They complete the process step they “own” as best they can, send their work on to the next person or department and hope for the best.  As a result, all too frequently they don’t have a sense of the whole process or their impact on it.

 “Good” People Caught in a “Bad” Process

Because of this, process owners sometimes don’t operate as a “team” to ensure that the whole process is functioning at its optimal level.  The result is usually wasted time, quality defects, unhappy customers and so on.  You can usually also add personal frustration as dedicated people try to improve things as best they can with limited knowledge and leverage.  As Deming pointed out, in this scenario, chances of success are slim.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

In our business process improvement (BPI) work with clients, we’ve seen how committed people, working together with a comprehensive view of the process they “live” in, can successfully wring productivity out of critical business processes, simultaneously improving work satisfaction and business results.

Here’s how:

Getting the “Whole System” in the Room

First, you need to give process owners a chance to see the big picture, by “getting the whole system in the room,” as we like to say.  This means assembling the cross-functional collection of individuals who “touch” or participate in a given process for a face-to-face, business process improvement work session.

 To See It, You Have to Map It!

The best way to see a process whole is to “map” it.  By “mapping” we mean literally creating a visual diagram – or flow chart – of all the steps of a given process, usually strung out on a large conference-room wall against a timeline.

It’s possible that your company may already have an official “map” or flow-chart of the process you’re focusing on, published in a three-wring binder somewhere.  Be aware that, although this “official” map may represent the way the process was originally designed or intended, it’s almost certainly not an accurate representation of how the process really works in your company today.  It’s this actual, “real-world” version of how this process is actually happening in your business now that you want to map carefully with your process improvement team.  We call this version the “as-is.”

 Troubleshooting the “As Is” Map

Once your process team has mapped the “as is,” they need to identify all of the glitches and problems associated with it, such as bottlenecks, obstacles, delays, errors, output quality problems, etc., etc..  With all of these identified, you’re now in a position to decide exactly what you want the “re-engineered” process look like in the future, once you’ve removed all the deficiencies.  We call this depiction of the improved version of a process the “to be.”

Mapping the “To Be”

Starting on another blank wall, your team now creates a picture of the new, more efficient process.  You’ll no doubt have undertaken this process improvement effort with a goal in mind:  to eliminate quality defects; to decrease the time it takes to repair a key product component; to get a service item or product to a customer quicker, etc.  Here is where you depict, in detail, the process that will do that.  Almost always, therefore, the “to be” version of your process will have fewer steps, will be more elegant, more robust, and will take less time to execute, since, by definition, it must represent an improvement over the “as is.”

Getting From the “As Is” to the “To Be”

Once you’ve created both your “as is” map, with its accompanying defects identified, as well as your “to be,” you’re perfectly positioned to create an action plan for getting from your process “as is” to where you want it “to be” in the future.  Define clear, concrete steps for fixing the problems you identified with the “as is” version and assign clear “owners” to implement the fixes according to specific “delivery” dates.  Then establish an implementation schedule according to which your process team agrees to meet regularly to track progress and hold each other accountable for creating the new, improved process.

Get Help if You Need It

If the approach described above seems completely foreign to your company, you may need to hire external resources initially to bring these business process improvement skills into your business.  But you should make sure you select someone who has the capability to train your own people to be self-sufficient in these skills for the future.

Process Improvement Yields Significant Results

One of our clients, a heavy-equipment manufacturer, found that their process for tracking the cost of building one of their multi-million-dollar machines had become inaccurate by as much as from 5 to 7%.  Since this piece of equipment takes a full year to build and the price commitment to a customer is made at the start of the build cycle, the process variance from actual cost was significantly affecting the company’s profit margins.  Within a year, with our help, a successful process improvement effort reduced this variance to 1%, and the company is continuing the effort to reduce it even further.

Another client, a medium-sized bank, reduced total file-administration steps among branch personnel by more than 50%, thus freeing people up for more direct-selling activity in the branches as part of their CEO’s “sales culture” initiative.

These are just a few examples.  We know from experience you can create your own.  All you need to do is put “good people” on the task of turning “bad processes” into improved ones for the benefit of your business and everyone involved.