Building in Flexibility

Business processes need to be able to adapt to handle changing requirements, so how can we standardize without being too rigid?

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One strong and compelling case for analyzing and documenting business processes is the potential to ensure standardization. When a process hasn’t been formally defined, it is likely that a set of practices have emerged organically over time — yet these practices may vary between teams or individuals. By contrast, with a single and agreed view of how the process should work, we ensure that our processes operate consistently and that our customers receive a consistent standard. There will be clear accountability as there will be agreement over who is doing what, and when. Guidance can be written on how to handle exceptions, and we can ensure that relevant internal and external Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are tracked to ensure that the process is achieving its intended goal.

Implementing standardization successfully relies on us truly understanding the demands and expectations of our target customers. When looking to implement process standardization it is tempting to examine the existing working practices, choose the ‘best’ parts, optimize and roll out a single process. Yet, if the existing working practices are falling short of customer expectations, then this may simply further perpetuate an existing set of problems. We may end up replacing a set of inconsistent work practices (that customers hated) with a single, unified process (that customers hate!). A situation that we can avoid by keeping the needs of our customers and process stakeholders clearly in view and by ensuring the process is capable of adapting if those needs change.

With a single process potentially serving the needs of many customer segments and complying with the needs of an even wider group of stakeholders, we are faced with a continual inherent risk: What if something changes? Many organizations operate in a volatile and fast-changing environment—it is quite possible that a regulator will impose a new rule at short notice, or that our customers’ needs and desires might change. If our process is too rigid, and if the standardization has been drummed into people to such an extent that it has become institutionalized, we may reach a difficult impasse. It is therefore extremely important that our processes look both externally and internally for feedback relating to performance and efficacy, and also that we build our processes with adaptation and flexibility in mind. The one thing we can be certain about is that a process we design today is going to need to change at some point in future — the question is when. It is worth considering which parts of the process are most volatile, or are most likely to change, and focus on making them most flexible. When introducing IT systems or automation, we may specifically choose systems and tools that are extensible and adaptable so that we can seize on future ideas.

We may also think about flexibility when considering how to handle exceptions. In many (or probably most) situations, the reality is that we are never going to be able to predict every single exception. As much as we try to predict every ‘edge case’, there will always be a customer or situation that doesn’t quite fit the mold. There may be cases when it is useful to provide a set of principles and operational guidance, whilst still allowing front-line staff to make decisions within prescribed boundaries. This will enable the process to adapt on-the-fly to the types of real-world situations and exceptions that it is difficult to predict in advance. It helps prevent situations occurring when customers feel like they are held back by ‘red tape’. As an example, I can remember running a workshop in a hired venue, and I needed a projector. There was a stack of projectors behind the reception desk, but since there was some kind of problem with the booking, I had to ring reservations, get them to raise a “ticket”, get the “ticket number” and hand that over to reception before they would release a projector. It perhaps would have been better to give the person on reception the authority to provide a projector, and sort the paperwork later.

Finally, alongside providing this bounded autonomy, it is also important to encourage process improvement ideas to be raised. The people liaising directly with the customer are often privy to what customers really think, and this is a rich source of insight into which we can tap.

In summary: Standardizing processes has a benefit and can ensure that we provide a consistent customer experience. Yet it is crucial that we understand what our customers and stakeholders want, and that we build adaptability and the ability to deal with variability into the process. This will help us avoid a whole range of process pitfalls.

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