We’re pretty sure that almost all business leaders, managers, and front-line workers want to create high-quality products and services that customers value consistently in the most cost-effective manner. But that isn’t always what happens, of course. While we know that good processes lead to good results, implementing and maintaining them is easier said than done.
Since we get to chat with folks about process improvement so often, we can share some of the reasons that processes break down and what you can do to avoid experiencing them.
1- The Definition of Process is too Narrow
Some people think of processes as complex operations, usually involving a factory line or some kind of laboratory work. But if you really want to improve results and efficiency across the organization, the definition of process needs to be much bigger.
Paying vendor invoices, for example, is a process. It involves the risk of inaccurate, late, or unnecessary payments. Ordering office supplies, approving expense reports, employee training, on-boarding, new product releases, all of these are processes that should be managed and potentially improved.
2 – There is No Standard Process
In many cases, the first problem causes the second one. The current best practice for a process isn’t documented, and therefore, each process operator may do the task differently. Without consistency in process operation, it is impossible to identify weaknesses or implement improvement.
The first step to good processes is documenting the order and manner of operations and ensuring that everyone is performing the tasks in the same way. The documentation should be developed by the people who perform the process. Once this “Standard work” is in place, you can collect data about process outputs and begin to form ideas for improvement.
3 – Applying Fixes to Symptoms
The lack of a Standard process operation often leads to process variation to eliminate problems without identifying the root cause of the issue. Soon these “one-off” workarounds become part of the process, bringing with them the opportunity for error, inconsistency, and inefficiency.
For example, let’s say workers can’t complete important tasks because a business software subscription was not paid, and the account was suspended. Paying the account would fix the problem and allow folks to get back to work, but it would not address the question of why the subscription wasn’t paid. It wouldn’t prevent the problem from happening again, and it wouldn’t identify other potentially at risks subscriptions.
When processes break down, train your team to look for the root cause. There are usually about five layers between the cause and the symptom. This is why a technique called the 5 Whys is so popular for root cause analysis.
4 – Lack of Innovation
There’s a world of difference between completely broken processes and perfect ones. Most business processes live somewhere in between. We’ve seen far too often that when processes are performing well enough, they get largely ignored.
Did the vendor invoices get paid? Yes. Just like last month. It took longer than necessary; there were errors that had to get corrected, Derek almost quit, but, yes, they got paid. It’s amazing what you can get used to.
A far better plan is to encourage people to look for innovative new ways of getting things done and give them a platform that supports managing these ideas. When there is any friction in a process at all, operators should have the means to flag, investigate, and resolve it.
5 – Measurement Problems
Another thing we find often is that operators and supervisors don’t have any measurements in place, and therefore, they don’t know if they have a good process producing good results or not. Or conversely, they are measuring everything and overreacting to every process variation, causing chaos and making accurate measurement even harder.
We recommend picking a few critical, objective, measurable performance indicators for each process and using control charts to measure the data. Control charts are great because, when used properly, they help analyzers sort the noise of normal variation from the signal that something requires attention.
This post lays out sort of a walk, jog, run, leap approach to process improvement.
- Broaden the idea of what is a process
- Implement standards
- Solve root causes when problems come up
- Innovate even when there aren’t pressing problems
- Measure what matters and react in proportion
If you work through these steps, your processes will produce excellent results over the long run.