Re-energizing Tired Business Processes

A lot is written about how to adapt, update and improve business processes. Without doubt, process improvement is an important discipline, but there may be cases where we investigate a troublesome situation only to find that the business processes are very well-defined and, on paper at least, no changes are required. Yet when we dig further we may find that the processes aren’t actually followed, and even worse we might find that several variations of each process have emerged, with different workers putting their own interpretation on how the work should flow through the organization. We may even find that work ‘falls through the gaps’ between departments, with disagreements over roles, responsibilities and handovers. It is almost like our beautiful, well-defined, process has become tired and forgotten. It sits languishing in a cupboard, never again to see the light of day!

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A lot is written about how to adapt, update and improve business processes. Without doubt, process improvement is an important discipline, but there may be cases where we investigate a troublesome situation only to find that the business processes are very well-defined and, on paper at least, no changes are required. Yet when we dig further we may find that the processes aren’t actually followed, and even worse we might find that several variations of each process have emerged with different workers putting their own interpretation on how the work should flow through the organization. We may even find that work ‘falls through the gaps’ between departments, with disagreements over roles, responsibilities and handovers. It is almost like our beautiful, well-defined, process has become tired and forgotten. It sits languishing in a cupboard, never again to see the light of day!

Before we begin to rectify a situation such as this, it is worth reflecting on why the problem has occurred in the first place. It is highly likely that there was a significant gap in engagement and communication when it came to the design of the process. A well-defined process is worth very little if there is no ‘buy in’ from those that actually have to operate it. Those who are closest to the customer and closest to the work typically have a detailed understanding of the challenges that are faced on a day-to-day basis, and it’s crucial that this insight is considered when designing and defining a process. It is also likely that there is an ongoing issue with process-management, else the issue would have been picked up and dealt with far earlier.

So how do we go about re-energizing processes in these types of situations? It is tempting to think a manager could just e-mail a ‘reminder’ of the official process to those involved, and perhaps start ‘enforcing’ compliance. Yet, this is unlikely to compensate for the communication gap that has occurred. An approach that is likely to be more fruitful is to take the opportunity to review and refresh the process. In doing so we accept that the process might need to change and some of the workarounds that have emerged might be more efficient than the original process design. One must also consider the possibility of Triage being needed. In any case, it warrants consideration.

This can start in a similar way to any process analysis initiative. It is worth spending time speaking with the various departments and teams that are involved and holding a workshop to examine the existing ‘official’ process. Any problematic areas can be discussed, as well as understanding why teams are undertaking work differently. In some cases, people might not be deliberately deviating from the process, this might genuinely be the first time they have seen the ‘official’ process artefacts. In others, they might have a well-considered reason for doing so. By working together in a facilitative session we can balance the different perspectives, and aim to produce a process model that everyone feels able to buy into. Of course, all of this is easier said than done. For complex processes, it is often necessary to seek further information/data and iterate our designs towards a consensus.  Sometimes this might involve no change to the existing process as those involved may have simply agreed that the process is fundamentally sound, other times there may be tweaks or more fundamental changes that are needed.

If there are changes, then of course these will need implementation. This is an opportunity to ensure that the communication gaps of the past do not reoccur. We can ensure that those involved know that the changes are coming, and we can also ensure that there is a clear process owner who will be responsible for monitoring and managing the process going forward. Ensuring that the process is documented in a shared notation, such as BPMN, that allows different ‘views’ for different stakeholders can help to ensure that everyone has a common understanding too.

In conclusion, if a process isn’t being followed it is likely to be due to a communication and process management issue. By reviewing and refreshing the process, we can bring people back on side, providing us with the opportunity to build consensus and build a process that stakeholders can really buy into.

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