Looking Outside: Networking for Process Improvement and Innovation

When improving a process, it is usual to look for internal opinions and ideas. In this blog, we explore the role of drawing expertise from external sources in our innovation and improvement initiatives.

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When analyzing and improving a business process, it is tempting to take a largely internal view. In fact, this is a very logical and rational place to start – it is necessary for us to establish how the process works (and how it should or could work), the constraints and problems, as well as understanding the internal actors that are involved and the internal stakeholders that have an interest. We’ll likely find that internal stakeholders have a whole range of ideas on how to improve the process too, and with careful modeling and analysis, we can come up with a whole range of potential improvements.

Whilst looking internally is important, there is always the danger that we might find that we become somewhat ‘blinkered’ in our thinking. Working with people who are close to the process and the organization helps yield real insight, but there may be other ways of solving the problem that are simply not yet known within the organization. Perhaps different companies or industries have solved a particular problem in a different way, or perhaps there is a standard approach which we can ‘borrow’ from other contexts. Widening our thinking could help us to improve a process even further, potentially even in a tried and tested way (learning from the mistakes of those who have tried before!).

Particularly when we are discussing non-contentious and non-competitive processes, it is very likely that others within the same industry will share knowledge. Whilst a specialist insurer is unlikely to disclose much about their core underwriting and claims processes, they might quite happily share information about some of their crucial support processes (payroll, procurement etc.) If we are working on such a process, it can be extremely useful to network with other similar organizations. Attending industry events, professional association meetings and conferences provides the perfect opportunity to network and to share information. In fact, attending these types of events often leads to a sense of reassurance – it is quite often the case that particular problems and ‘quirks’ that we thought were peculiar to our organization are actually very common! This can lead to very interesting conversations around how different companies have solved them (including what worked well, and what didn’t work so well). After the conference or event has ended, it is well worth staying in touch and continuing to share further information and insight.

Of course, there will be some processes where this type of open disclosure isn’t appropriate. Here, an interesting question to ask can be “How have other industries solved their problems?” An online retailer might appear to have nothing in common with a traditional insurer. Yet, one common problem that they presumably both face is getting the customer to make a purchase. Successful online retailers typically make this as easy as possible – so a team within an insurance company might ask “What can we learn from online retailers?” Perhaps they focus on creating an experience where the minimum possible number of questions are asked in order to generate a premium, then supplementary information is collected only during the purchase process. This approach might work equally well when customers are quoted by phone, or even ‘face to face’ in a broker’s office. Borrowing broad concepts from other industries, but tailoring them to the context of another can lead to innovative changes.

Finally, but of equal importance, it is crucial that we don’t forget a very important external stakeholder – the end-customer or beneficiary of the product or service! Gaining insight through focus-groups or surveys can be a valuable way of really understanding customers’ frustrations and pain points, as well as what they like about the current products and processes. We might even find that customers have a different set of needs to those that we anticipated.

In summary: Process analysis typically starts with a somewhat internal focus. By expanding beyond this, and seeking new and different ways of refining our processes and solving our problems, we may come up with new and even more effective solutions.

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