Tips and Tools for Business Process Improvement
Who can forget the infamous late-night infomercials with legendary pitchman Ron Popiel screaming through the television, “all you have to do is set it and forget it!” As it turned out, this was actually great advice for making delicious, juicy rotisserie chicken on your kitchen counter. But the same adage should not be applied to your business processes.
Most business owners would agree there are many benefits to having reliable processes in place for everything from ordering supplies to product design, marketing and accounting. In fact, 46% of businesses agree that having effective processes directly reduces costs, among other benefits.
Key benefits of having effective processes in place:
● Reduce errors and re-work ● Boost efficiency ● More easily scale business activities
Once you have established processes for running the business, the next thing to focus on is checking and improving them.
Why your business processes may need attention
Day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, your business is changing. Technologies emerge and become antiquated, people’s tastes fall in and out of favor, entire countries boom and bust over economic and political pressures, and the wind blows to the east, then to the west. Get what I’m trying to say?
Absolutely nothing about the inner workings of your business and the external factors affecting its market and the world at large are the same today as they were yesterday. Everything is in a constant state of flux, and the pace of change is faster than ever. With this logic, how could a process you developed six months ago have the same impact today? Spoiler alert: it can’t.
Your business is constantly changing, and your processes need to change right along with it. But beyond that, even the best-laid plans aren’t perfect on the first go-around. Unfortunately, few small business leaders are process specialists, and as a result, the systems they create often fail to consider the user. Instead, processes don’t include all necessary stakeholders and are missing critical elements needed to meet every user’s need.
This is why process improvement that includes team input is vital to the success of your systems. And that’s not all it takes! Here’s how you can stay on the cutting edge of process improvement.
When you may need process improvement
I would argue that you’ll always need process improvement in one way or another. But the degree to which you need to shake things up varies. Assessing your process should give you the answers you need to the all-important question of, “do I need process improvement right now, and if so, how much needs to change?”
Look for red flags
Here are some questions to ask that may point to an immediate need to re-assess your processes:
Have your revenues, profits, cash flow, or value creation revenue increased, decreased, or remained the same? Effective, worthwhile processes should yield gains in several of these areas.
Is your organization grappling with dysfunctional decision-making, miscommunication, or goal misalignment? These are signs that your processes are not keeping pace with growth.
Has your team repeatedly missed crucial deadlines? They may be adding too many features or bogged down with excessive planning meetings. These are hallmark signs of scope creep!
Are you retaining your talent? When you use processes to onboard new hires, most employees (58%) will stay for three years or more.
Once you know it's time for some improvements, revisit the documentation used to create the processes in question. Revisiting these documents is a significant first step to reviewing and evaluating the success or failure of the systems you developed. If you haven’t documented your processes and need help getting started, use our Process Development Template.
Get Our Process Development Template
Still need help with process development? Download our free template to develop and document your processes so you can: ● Reduce errors and re-work ● Boost efficiency ● More easily scale business activities
Analyze and review
Once you’ve re-familiarized yourself with the processes as documented, begin to look at them as they’re playing out in real life. Just because you’ve written something on a piece of paper doesn’t mean the team members responsible for the task are following the documented process to the letter… and that’s OK!
Take the time to list all the functions of your business. Write them down in order of importance and think about the systems you’ve designed to achieve these functions. Is your process being executed as designed? If not, is the process that’s actually happening better than the one you created?
Talk to your team
If you notice this happening, talk to your team. Getting input from the people who actually manage and execute the process on a day-to-day level is an invaluable part of analyzing and reviewing your process. Your team just might provide the most useful insights in this stage—even more than your documents and metrics.
Making discoveries like these are where genuine process improvement lies because things that work out neatly in a process planning document don’t always play out as planned, especially when humans are in charge of completing the task. Take candy company Green Rabbit, for instance.
They began their business wholesaling candy but had trouble successfully shipping perishable confections, like chocolate. To fix this problem, they innovated (more on that later) a heat-sensitive supply chain that worked so well, other perishable food suppliers took notice.
Although they once operated effectively by using Quickbooks and Excel, they soon realized that the newfound demand for their dynamic supply chain required a more robust process. So they took the time to step back and analyze the process and leaned into changing it. Doing so was far from easy, but the result was sweet.
They now ship tens of thousands of orders per day from three warehouses. Green Rabbit ships orders within 24 hours of being placed with few, if any, inventory errors. Their customers are happy to receive their treats in good condition, no matter what the climate.
Review your metrics
When you created your processes, you should have defined metrics to determine the success or failure of your new process (Step 6). It’s time to dust those metrics off and do some testing.
Look at your indicators for success. They could be a few things I mentioned in the previous section (revenues, profits, etc.) If, after evaluating your metrics, you see no obvious issues but still suspect change is needed, follow your intuition and dig deeper.
Let’s say you’re a toy manufacturer, and you’ve developed and are now selling the most popular fidget toy. But new competitors enter this market every day, so you create a process to update your product every quarter to remain competitive. The metric you assess to measure the success of this process is on-time product releases.
Interestingly, your product development team continues to meet its quarterly goal, satisfying the metric you’re measuring, but sales are stagnating. Why? Because your customers loved a previous version of the fidget toy.
In this case, your metrics were wrong. Instead, you should’ve been tracking the net promoter score or another indicator of customer satisfaction. Had you done so, you would’ve known their love for your previous products and not hastened to replace them with newer, less popular versions.
When all else fails, you need to have the courage to ask why. Be brave when you ask this question because usually, if you get to the point of needing to ask why something is done the way it’s done, you’re not going to like the answer. Prepare yourself for this; the “why” conversation has potent power to disappoint.
Most of the time, the answer will be something along the lines of, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” That’s just not good enough. “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” is perhaps one of the weakest justifications for a step in the process. The good news is, answers like that make it easy to identify the steps that deserve a tweak.
You may also be surprised at the answers to your “whys.” They just might provide valuable insights into the inner workings of your team, their strengths, and weaknesses. Embrace these challenging conversations and use the answers to your why questions as you begin the process of process improvement.
Another point on asking why: keep it about the process, not the person. Stay objective, and keep the team focused on the problem instead of assigning blame. This approach will disarm, avoiding conflict and ill will within the team. Make everyone the ‘hero’ in fixing it by encouraging them to ask their own whys.
How to begin improving processes
Now that you’ve assessed what’s actually happening, you need to think about what should be happening. You may expect the process improvement process to be easy, especially since you’ve already put in the leg work to develop a process in the first place. But let me be the first to warn you, process improvement isn’t easy and may even prove to be more difficult than process development. Most things that are worthwhile—like process improvement—are hard. You can do this! Let’s go!
Make process maps
A great way to get a better handle on any variations from the planned process is to map out the steps or refer to the original process map as part of process development, the third step in my process development article. Having a process maps makes it easier to find which steps may need adjustments, which I’ll cover below.
Using the map, play around with your process, and don’t be afraid to mix things up to get more out of each step and the overall process. The goal here is to find the best areas to make incremental improvements, rather than to re-invent the whole procedure. Make sure your process changes are realistic and manageable, given the current context of your business.
Eliminate or add steps
As you map your processes, you’ll inevitably run into areas where steps can be eliminated or added. This is perfectly normal! Eliminating un-needed steps streamlines the work, which should make your team happier because the work becomes easier, and they can get more done in the same time.
You may also run into areas where you think your process is becoming too ambiguous and needs another step or two to clarify the purpose and keep team members on track. That’s OK, too! Sometimes, breaking down complex steps into simpler ones can make the process easier to understand and may even reduce training costs.
This very issue plagued NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter in 1999, causing catastrophic failure and the ultimate destruction of the device. The orbiter was designed to circumnavigate Mars 226 km above the surface but could withstand being as close as 80 km if need be. Unfortunately, the orbiter was mistakenly sent 57 km above the surface of Mars and disintegrated, becoming a victim of the very climate it was built to monitor.
How on Earth (or Mars) could the most sophisticated group of rocket scientists working in the aeronautical agency of the most powerful country in the world make such a mistake? They forgot to convert their units. Yes, you read that correctly. Their process omitted a step to check their unit conversions from imperial to metric.
You could easily make the argument that had NASA pursued process improvement, they would have noticed this crucial step was missing and corrected course. Doing so would’ve prevented the Mars Climate Orbiter’s demise and saved NASA the $193 million it took to build the device.
Everyone makes mistakes, even rocket scientists. But this seemingly simple error had dire consequences. Process improvement can protect your projects from a similar fate.
You have a team working tirelessly to execute your processes, but is everyone fulfilling the proper role? As you work toward process improvement, you may not only notice how steps in the process can be streamlined but how your team can be best utilized.
Maybe this means re-assigning responsibilities across individuals and teams. Or, you might find that you need more subject matter experts on the team. This may even mean that you need to slim down and have fewer cooks in the kitchen.
Whatever changes you need to make, don’t forget that your people are your most precious resource. Treat them that way by giving them reasonable tasks designed to engage their gifts and abilities.
An all-too-common side effect of re-evaluating the roles on your team is identifying opportunities to automate. As technology gets more intelligent, there are parts of your process you can reassign from a human being to some form of artificial intelligence. Don’t feel bad about this; your people are better off performing tasks that only human beings can do, like innovation (more on that later).
There are many ways you can automate your processes. Here are a few examples:
Administrative: Zapier can help you with administrative and organizational tasks. For example, it can take emails in your Gmail account and copy them to Dropbox, Slack, and other common workflow programs to save you the effort.
Human Resources: This is an area many executives believe is undergoing a digital transformation, and tools like UZIO are the proof. This HR tool for small- to medium-sized businesses can help you with many human resources functions, including employee onboarding, time and attendance management, employee records management, and more.
Marketing: Automating marketing functions, especially with the rise of social media, has become a popular solution for many businesses, large and small. Using programs like Hubspot or Hootsuite are effective ways to automate the promotional steps in your processes.
Finance: Finance was perhaps the first place we saw automation happening on a large scale; just look at Excel! But today, financial automation has evolved past the bookkeeping software of previous decades and has matured into programs like Zoho Books and Wave, which automates the invoicing process.
But a word of warning. Most automation tools require an investment of time and money. So before signing up for automation software, do a quick calculation to ensure that the automation cost and effort are worth it. It’s easy to be seduced by the flash of new programs that promise the world, but automating is only worthwhile if you save a lot of time or money or both. Don’t spend a week developing fancy automation to save you a day’s work over the next year (I’m looking at you, engineer founders).
How do you innovate dynamic processes?
Process improvement is a process itself. And not all solutions will come about through routine analysis and process mapping. Sometimes, the best way to improve how you do things is to engage your creative muscles and think a little outside of the box (or off the map). What I’m talking about is innovation.
This is far easier said than done. Innovating effectively is a tall order, and worthwhile ideas rarely fall from the sky. Instead, you need to cultivate an environment of creativity, designed to bring out the best and brightest ideas from your team.
Set aside time
There are never enough hours in the day to accomplish all your goals, especially for a busy startup trying to carve its niche in the world. But if you want your team to innovate, you have to make time for them to do it.
Set aside time for a mandatory innovation hour (or two). You can do this as often as you want; the important thing is to get it on your team’s calendar. Make sure they step away from all other responsibilities during this time. You may even want to encourage them to leave their phones at their desks (crazy, I know).
At this point, you may be questioning the notion of forced innovation. That’s fair. But in today’s work environment, getting people out of their heads, off their phones, and into a place where they can develop creative solutions to the barriers facing their business is challenging. No matter how hard you try to keep distractions at bay during work hours, our world is very distracting, and those distractions often stifle innovation. Providing a structured time and place to think, however strange it may sound, does work!
If you do this right, you’re going to hear things you don’t like. Prepare for that. You need to be able to take criticism about yourself or the processes you’ve created if you have any shot at meaningful process improvement.
Being this vulnerable, especially as the team leader, doesn’t come easy and will take some time. But the more open you are, the better and more innovative the result. Of course, cultivating creative solutions is never easy, but you’ll get the best ideas from your top team members with the right environment and leadership.
Need help with your process improvement project?
Broken processes can cost your business time and money—without you even noticing. Figuring out exactly where a process failed and how to improve it isn’t always easy, but process improvement is possible. Here are some tips for how to approach improving processes in your small business.
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