Simple is beautiful: Useful questions to cut through process complexity


When we work with our stakeholders to look for potential business process improvements, we may find that they focus on the underlying complexity that needs to be handled. As we elicit more information about the process, they may tell us about every logical branch and every exception, and we'll gain a really rich understanding of the existing situation. This is very useful and will aid our analysis - after all, we'll need to ensure that our processes can cater for the real environment and are useful in practice. However, it’s also important that we understand (and in some cases challenge) the need for each layer of complexity. In some cases, we may find that particular branches and steps are no longer relevant, and we may be able to simplify the overall process by eliminating them. Doing so may well make our customers' lives easier, and ensure that the process is as quick, slick and as cost effective as possible. It can be a real win/win.

In order to achieve these types of improvements, it is important to tactfully challenge the status quo. It is useful to have somebody independent—perhaps a business analyst or process consultant—to examine the process with a fresh pair of eyes. Whoever undertakes this work, it can be useful to keep the following questions in mind:

1. Why is this task/activity undertaken, and what would happen if it were omitted? This question provides a useful sense check on how critical an activity is. This may uncover activities that are only required in particular scenarios, and in these cases introducing a ‘triage’ step can help. Triage ensures that activities are only undertaken when they are really needed, and allows simpler cases to flow through a process unhindered.

2. Is this task being undertaken by the right team, person or system? We've probably all seen cases where a task or activity is undertaken by a particular team just because they were in the 'right place at the right time' when the process was being designed. When redesigning a process, there is the opportunity to ask whether the work should really be undertaken elsewhere, and perhaps whether tasks should be combined to reduce handovers and to create greater ownership.

3. Is this task receiving the outputs it needs? Is it generating suitable outputs for the next task? So often, tasks further downstream are made more complicated as they have to deal with 'rework', due to a defect that has occurred elsewhere. Perhaps a dispatch team routinely have to call the customer to check the address as it is often entered incorrectly by the sales team. Building in better validation or at least ensuring that the various stakeholders know the impacts that these defects create, can reduce the need for rework and simplify exception handling.

4. Have we considered customer feedback and complaints? Often, if a process is overly complex, one group of stakeholders that will know (and will be shouting about it) are customers. Customer complaints are often seen as a negative thing -- but complaints can be a rich resource for improvement. Clearly, we must decide which pieces of feedback to consider and which to park, but either way tapping into this insight can help us craft our processes to be better.

5. What problems are the process operators/actors themselves reporting? As well as customers, the staff that actually work with the process can provide a mine of information about how the process can be improved and simplified. By working with them to understand the root cause -- which may not be the cause they originally state or explain to us -- we can look for opportunities to simplify and improve processes. It is well worth working closely with these stakeholders, through a series of workshops, interviews and observation sessions to uncover these areas of insight.

There are of course, many other useful questions, but the questions above will provide a useful starting point. Keeping simplification in mind will allow us to produce slicker, better and more efficient and effective processes.

In summary: when it comes to process redesign, simple really is beautiful. Keeping a simplification mindset can pay dividends and help us create better processes.