Process Improvement: Four Pitfalls

Process Improvement can reap many rewards but as always, there may be a few difficulties along the way. In his latest blog post, Adrian Reed discusses the four common pitfalls to watch out for.

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When we analyze our organization’s business processes, we’ll often find a whole range of potential improvement opportunities.  This is particularly likely when an ‘as is’ process has evolved organically over time, rather than having been consciously designed. In some cases, our process analysis work might be the first time the process has ever been formally documented, and perhaps previously the process had been passed down to new team members informally through demonstration and conversation. Inefficiencies may have inadvertently and innocently crept in over the years, and taking an end-to-end view allows us to look at things afresh.

Yet even with a laser-like focus on improvement, a range of pitfalls await the unprepared.  In fact, unless we take a holistic view of the overall process and business situation, there is a danger that we might actually make the situation worse. Here are four examples of common pitfalls that are worthy of consideration:

1. Failing to identify all stakeholders (and their needs):  Processes often have a number of very visible stakeholders and ‘actors’ who clearly warrant our attention.  There will be a customer or beneficiary receiving the output or outcome from the process, as well as the people and systems involved in carrying out the necessary work.  However, there may be other less visible stakeholders with a whole range of differing, and sometimes conflicting, interests.  We ignore these at our peril!

Let’s take a hypothetical example; imagine we examine the tasks undertaken by a telesales team when selling a product to the customer.  We would naturally identify the customer and the telesales agent as important actors or stakeholders – but there may be other stakeholders whose needs must also be represented.  It might be tempting to avoid or dilute the “Carry out credit check” task; as neither the customer nor the telesales agent particularly value it.  However, the Finance and Credit Control teams would be directly affected by any change made here – and whilst they might not be active participants in the process, it is crucial that their needs are represented and that their engagement is sought.

2. Assuming automation is the only solution:  There is no doubt that automation and information technology are key enablers in just about every organization.  Processes can be significantly improved through appropriate use of IT.  However, there can sometimes be a clamour to buy the ‘next big’ IT system assuming that it will somehow solve every perceived problem within a particular process – often before these problems have been investigated or defined.  Careful analysis of the underlying problem and consideration of where IT will deliver value will ensure that benefits can be achieved.   Furthermore, it is well worth considering simplification before automation to ensure you don’t end up with ‘baked in’ inefficiencies.  In any case, it’s worth analyzing and understanding the problem first before jumping to a solution.

3. Offloading the cost:  It’s the unfortunate truth that when focussing on eliminating waste and unnecessary cost, it’s very easy to inadvertently offload extra effort or cost onto other stakeholders—sometimes the customer.  Anyone who has ever used a self-service checkout may have experienced this pain. After being unable to find a barcode and waited for a shop assistant to arrive, it’s easy to ask the questions “Exactly how do I benefit from this?” and “Hasn’t the effort just been transferred from the shop to the consumer?”.   While this will sometimes be a necessary and balanced decision, it is important to make the decision consciously and understand the impact.

4. Assuming what gets documented will get done:   Having created a carefully crafted and well-designed process model, we might assume that we can walk away and the process will bed itself in.   Yet in reality, if we do this we might find that the new process is never really adopted, or that it gets inadvertently changed or misinterpreted along the way.   For this reason, it’s extremely important that we consult and involve the relevant process and business stakeholders throughout, and ensure that there is clear engagement and communication throughout implementation.   Ensuring that we articulate our processes using a common notation can really help here, and ensuring that the documents are stored in a common repository can ensure that people have a single reference point.  Additionally, having an overriding communication and engagement plan is crucial.

Summary

In summary, process improvement is an extremely useful exercise which can reap many rewards, but there may be traps awaiting us depending on the specific business situation.   Taking a holistic view of the problem, situation and the outcome that we’re driving for will really help.  Ensuring that we drive collaboration and engagement throughout will make it much more likely that any process changes stick.   Conscious effort in all of these areas will pay dividends in the long run.

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