Improving Business Processes

Streamlining Tasks to Improve Efficiency

Process diagram and magnifying glass

Map processes carefully before making changes.

© iStockphoto/s_john79

You probably use dozens of business processes every day.

For example, you may go through the same steps each time you generate a report, resolve a customer complaint, contact a new client, or manufacture a new product.

You've likely come across the results of inefficient processes, too. Unhappy customers, stressed colleagues, missed deadlines, and increased costs are just some of the problems that dysfunctional processes can create.

That's why it's so important to improve processes when they are not working well. In this article, we'll look at how you can do this.

About Business Processes

Processes can be formal or informal. Formal processes – also known as procedures – are documented, and have well-established steps.

For example, you might have procedures for receiving and submitting invoices, or for establishing relationships with new clients. Formal processes are particularly important when there are safety-related, legal or financial reasons for following particular steps.

Informal processes are more likely to be ones that you have created yourself, and you may not have written them down. For example, you might have your own set of steps for noting meeting actions, carrying out market research, or communicating new leads.

The Importance of Efficient Processes

These different kinds of processes have one thing in common: they're all designed to streamline the way that you and your team work.

When everyone follows a well-tested set of steps, there are fewer errors and delays, there is less duplicated effort, and staff and customers feel more satisfied.

Processes that don't work can lead to numerous problems. For example:

  • Customers may complain about poor product quality or bad service.
  • Colleagues get frustrated.
  • Work may be duplicated, or not done.
  • Costs increase.
  • Resources are wasted.
  • Bottlenecks can develop, causing you to miss deadlines.

In this article, we focus on incremental process change, aimed at improving existing processes. If you need to start again from first principles, see our article on Business Process Reengineering  .

Improving Your Team's Processes

When you encounter some of the problems mentioned above, it may be time to review and update the relevant process. Follow these steps to do this:

Step 1: Map the Process

Once you've decided which process you want to improve, document each step using a Flowchart   or a Swim Lane Diagram  . These tools show the steps in the process visually. (Swim lane diagrams are slightly more complex than flowcharts, but they're great for processes that involve several people or groups.)

It's important to explore each phase in detail, as some processes may contain sub-steps that you're not aware of. Consult people who use the process regularly to ensure that you don't overlook anything important.

Step 2: Analyze the Process

Use your flow chart or swim lane diagram to investigate the problems within the process. Consider the following questions:

  • Where do team members or customers get frustrated?
  • Which of these steps creates a bottleneck  ?
  • Where do costs go up and/or quality go down?
  • Which of these steps requires the most time, or causes the most delays?

First use Root Cause Analysis  , Cause and Effect Analysis  , or The 5 Whys   to trace the problem to its origins. After all, if you only fix the symptoms, the problems will continue.

Speak to the people who are affected by the process. What do they think is wrong with it? And what suggestions do they have for improving it?

Then look at other teams in your organization. What tactics have they developed to deal with similar situations?

Step 3: Redesign the Process

You're now going to redesign the process to eliminate the problems you have identified.

It's best to work with the people who are directly involved in the process. Their ideas may reveal new approaches, and, also, they're more likely to buy into change if they've been involved at an early stage.

First, make sure that everyone understands what the process is meant to do. Then, explore how you can address the problems you identified in step 2 (Brainstorming   can help here). Note down everyone's ideas for change, regardless of the costs involved.

Then, narrow your list of possible solutions by considering how your team's ideas would translate to a real-life context.

Start by conducting an Impact Analysis   to understand the full effects of your team's ideas. Then, carry out a Risk Analysis   and a Failure Mode and Effects Analysis   to spot possible risks and points of failure within your redesigned process. Depending on your organization's focus, you may also want to consider Customer Experience Mapping   at this stage.

These tests will help you to understand the full consequences of each proposed idea, and allow you to make the right decision for everyone.

Once you and your team agree on a process, create new diagrams to document each step.

Step 4: Acquire Resources

You now need to secure the resources you need to implement the new process. List everything that you'll need to do this.

This could include guidance from senior managers or from colleagues in other departments, such as IT or HR. Communicate with each of these groups, and make sure that they understand how this new process will benefit the organization as a whole. You may need to prepare a business case   to demonstrate this.

Step 5: Implement and Communicate Change

It's likely that improving your business process will involve changing existing systems, teams, or processes. For example, you may need to acquire new software, hire a new team member, or organize training for colleagues.

Rolling out your new process could be a project in itself, so plan and manage this carefully. Allocate time for dealing with teething troubles, and consider running a pilot first, to check for potential problems.

Keep in mind that change is not always easy. People can be resistant to it, especially when it involves a process that they've been using for some time. You can use tools such as the Change Curve   and Kotter's 8-Step Change Model   to help overcome resistance to change.

Step 6: Review the Process

Few things work perfectly, right from the start. So, after you roll out the new process, closely monitor how things are going in the weeks and months that follow, to ensure that the process is performing to expectations. This monitoring will also allow you to fix problems as they occur.

Make it a priority to ask the people involved with the new process how it's working, and what – if any – frustrations they're experiencing.

Adopt continuous improvement strategies such as Kaizen  . Small improvements made regularly will ensure that the process stays relevant and efficient.

Key Points

A business process is a set of steps or tasks that you and your team use repeatedly to create a product or service, reach a specific goal, or provide value to a customer or supplier. When processes work well, they can significantly improve efficiency, productivity, and customer satisfaction.

However, processes that don't work can cause frustration, delays, and financial loss.

To improve a business process, follow these steps.

  1. Map processes.
  2. Analyze the process.
  3. Redesign the process.
  4. Acquire resources.
  5. Implement and communicate change.
  6. Review the process.

Keep in mind that you'll need to improve most processes at some point. New goals, new technology, and changes in the business environment can all cause established processes to become inefficient or outdated.

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Comments (3)
  • lijo thomas wrote Over a month ago
    Reviewing a process would also involve redefining and documenting it. It is quite challenging to decide in what detail to document the process.Any tips on how to resolve it?-Lijo
  • Ram Kumar wrote Over a month ago
    I agree with Yolande. The power of having a Process Improvement Tool is to make the concerned stakeholders to believe in the actual improvisation of both tools and the technology driven process; which will result in a great improvement of KPI and ROT matrices.

    - Ram Kumar.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    As much as we don't like it, reviewing processes from time to time is a necessity. One of the most important points to me, is communicating adequately regarding the change. In my opinion people are often hesitant about change simply because they're uncertain, not because they're unwilling. The better we can take care of their uncertainties, the better their cooperation will probably be. After all, we rely on people to make the processes work.


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