Every person has a different idea of process improvement success - learn how to ask the right questions!
Prior to embarking on any type of process improvement initiative it is absolutely crucial to define the outcomes that the organization is aiming to achieve. Taking time to define what we mean by ‘success’ ensures that there is common alignment with regards to the outcomes that we are collectively seeking with the improvement initiatives that we run. After all, the word 'improvement' is very subjective, one person may feel that a quicker process is better, whereas another may focus on the quality of the service provided by that process, and yet another may focus on reducing the overall cost. Of course, these improvement areas are certainly not mutually exclusive—in fact, a quicker, higher quality process will almost certainly lead to fewer queries, returns and other types of failure demand (meaning that it will likely save money too). However, problems can occur when different stakeholders have drastically different and polarized views on the types of improvement that we are looking to attain.
Whilst there are many lenses through which we could examine process improvement outcomes, one perspective that we come back to time and time again is that of the customer. Ultimately, end-to-end processes should exist to enable value to be realized by somebody somewhere, and knowing what it is that they value is crucial. In large disjointed and dysfunctional organizations it is very easy to let the customer’s voice become remote, instead favoring only insular internal opinions. Yet if those internal opinions are held in the absence of any real research or up-to-date insight, then we risk creating products and improving processes that our customers don't need or want. Like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, we ignore our external environment and end up creating processes that (very efficiently) do the wrong thing and our customers vote with their feet!
It has become very common in organizations to ask the question "What does success look like?". This is a very positive and useful statement as it encourages us and our stakeholders to think about the types of outcome that we are trying to achieve. Yet a valid retort to this question could be "What does success look like to whom?". In many cases different stakeholders will have very different perspectives on the problem under discussion, and reconciling these perspectives early will help us accelerate our projects and initiatives. With a consensus on what success looks like, from the viewpoints of a variety of stakeholders, we can define and agree some hard metrics. Perhaps we are aiming for more customers, more revenue, or some other tangible factors. Indicators and targets can be set so that there is a clear and unambiguous definition of what we are ultimately aiming to achieve.
Whilst the tangible fruits of our process improvement labor are crucial, it is also important that we consider the less tangible factors as well. These factors may well directly affect the quality of the experience of the process—both for internal and external stakeholders—and are likely to have a knock-on impact to the more tangible indicators (although one that is often hard to predict or measure).
One way of eliciting some of these types of factor can be to ask "What does success feel like?"—and to imagine asking this question from the perspective of our key stakeholder groups. If we imagine that we were improving a process in a call center, we might consider that our process improvement initiative ought to have the following less tangible outcomes:
Customers: A better and more personalized customer experience, where they feel they are speaking to more informed customer service agents that know their history and specific circumstances.
Call Centre Staff: Better job satisfaction as the processes will be more 'fit for purpose', and more appropriate KPIs and targets are set.
Managers: More confident operational decision making and planning is enabled, as the data collated about the process is more trustworthy.
There would undoubtedly be other stakeholder perspectives that we would need to consider too, and it would be important to spread the net wide. By considering this wider perspective, eliciting the less tangible desired outcomes and ensuring they are compatible with the measurable, tangible metrics that we are striving for, we ensure that our process improvement projects and initiatives are aligned for success. We ensure that the voice of the customer is built in from the very beginning, and that we consider customer experience throughout. In doing so, we help to co-create processes that deliver outcomes that meet the needs of all of our stakeholders, and that those involved can really buy into the new processes.
New to process improvement? The Lean Methodology is the go-to method for many organizations to help guide them along. Learn more about how Lean could help your organization, or dive straight in and give our free Lean Visio starter pack a go.