One of the biggest challenges we hear from organizations that are new to structured business process improvement is that it is hard to articulate for employees what constitutes an opportunity for improvement. Usually, there are some low-hanging-fruit ideas that people jump on right away, but once those are cleared away, it can be difficult to spot flaws in processes, especially ones that you operate every day.
An excellent remedy for this problem is giving employees categories of improvement possibilities to consider. By providing a few examples and asking questions, leaders can spark ideas, get people thinking innovatively, and support their improvement cultures.
Once problems are identified, a variety of improvement techniques can be deployed to solve them.
Reducing costs is often seen as the responsibility of finance managers and executives. Still, the chances are good that your front-line employees know exactly where and how waste creeps in. Common examples include:
- Buying too much of a perishable item
- Creating paper records or forms when electronic ones would suffice
- Not reviewing vendor contracts frequently enough
- Using space to store inventory that turns over infrequently
- Overstaffing customer support teams
These might not be the exact cost-related issues facing your organization, but they may trigger ideas from your team on how to reduce costs.
It may seem strange to ask for ideas for increasing revenue from people who aren’t in sales or product development, but our clients have found that great ideas for increasing sales can come from anyone. We’ve seen companies add to the top line by:
- Repackaging products and services to meet customer needs
- Finding unexpected audiences or new markets
- Improving collections processes
- Introducing new ways of marketing to existing customers
You might be surprised about the ways folks in customer support, accounting, or any other customer-facing role would suggest bumping up revenue.
Nothing is worse for profitability than product defects or errors. They waste materials and time as well as risk upset customers. That’s why quality problems are usually the first to get targeted for improvement. Some issues are apparent, but others take a little more effort to uncover. Our clients have implemented opportunities for quality improvement that:
- Track customer complaints or reasons for product return
- Use control charts to track the number of defects to find common and special causes
- Leverage the 5-whys to find the exact root cause of a defect
- Calculate the financial impact of defects
- Introducing process automation
When asking for quality improvement ideas, remember that it isn’t just products and services that can have errors. Keeping internal processes and documentation free from defects and rework is equally essential. Your staff probably has some thoughts on that as well.
Every organization should be concerned about the safety of its workers and guests. Fortunately, this is one area where front-line employees can be very effective at suggesting and implementing improvements. Process improvement examples related to safety include:
- Better employee training
- Workplace organization and standardization
- A standard process for reporting hazards
- Close attention to near misses
- Visual indicators of hazards
It stands to reason that the people who would know how best to improve customer satisfaction are the people who interact with customers most often. Sadly, these employees are often considered too low on the org chart to ask for ideas. That’s unfortunate. Our customers who have taken the opposite approach have implemented employee ideas with great success. A few examples of satisfaction related process changes:
- Altered call flow for incoming inquires
- Improved communication channels, frequency, and content
- A structured approach to handling complaints
- Transaction-based satisfaction surveys
- Skills-based contact center routing
Your front-line employees know what drives your customers nuts. So it pays to ask them to help identify opportunities for improvement.
The Lean approach to business management aims at seven universal wastes. Many of them center on efficiency. In fact, when we talk to process operators, the thing that they say drives them nuts the most is inefficiency. People just hate wasting time. Organizations can make people more productive by:
- Ensuring that equipment and supplies are available and conveniently located
- Eliminating duplicate work (especially data entry)
- Removing unnecessary layers of approval
- Making sure that every meeting is necessary and effective
All of the above examples represent ideas for improving business processes, but it is also essential to examine how you can improve your approach to improvement. Effective communications and documentation are the keys to accelerating the pace of positive change. You might consider:
- Implementing improvement management software
- Using electronic-based wallboards to display work in progress
- Implementing daily huddle meetings to discuss the day’s improvement plan
- Measuring the health of your improvement culture
- Facilitating improved cross-functional collaboration
Once your team is excellent at identifying opportunities for improvement, you’ll need a few improvement techniques to implement them. Here are some of the basics:
PDSA: Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) is a simple cycle for improvement. The steps are:
Plan: Define the problem and identify possible solutions.
Do: Implement an experimental solution.
Study: Review the results of the change.
Act: If the change resulted in improvement, it is added to the standard procedure.
The 5 Whys: The 5 whys is a technique for finding the actual root cause of an issue. If you state a problem (result), then ask why 5 times, you’ll usually get to the heart of the matter.
5S: 5S is a workplace organization technique for improving safety and efficiency. The steps are: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, sustain.
A3 Problem Solving: A3 problem solving is a structured technique for defining and solving problems. On a single sheet of paper, the team determines the current state, identifies the desired state, selects performance measurements, develops an implementation plan, and tracks the results.
Business process improvement is critical for competitive success, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Some changes will involve a significant project, but many can be done quickly and ad-hoc. With the right process improvement software in place and some good food for thought, your team will be offering ideas in no time.