how can you improve processes

Process diagram

Don’t attempt to automate a flawed process

How can you improve processes? Not necessarily just by computerising them.

This may sound obvious, but if your process is flawed, although it may be possible to improve to a certain extent with automation, any flaw will still be present and will likely trip you up later.

The warning signs

Often there are a number of warning signs that your processes aren’t as good as they could be:

  1. Customer complaints increase as your business grows
  2. Staff get frustrated and the work environment becomes stressful
  3. Deadlines for delivery are missed due to bottlenecks
  4. Important work steps may be missed, or unnecessarily done twice
  5. Costs increase disproportionately to the business growth

A business is most at risk of poor process management as it grows – often stopping that growth in its tracks because underlying systems aren’t in place to handle that growth effectively.

The four key steps in process improvement

1. Map and analyse the process

Flowcharting tools can be useful for this – but mapping out on a whiteboard is quick and easy and has the benefits of being able to be discussed at meetings more effectively and quickly adapted on-the-fly as thinking and understanding changes.

A whiteboard is also a useful way of engaging your staff in the task of process improvement by being more visible and not buried inside an application on a computer screen.

Brainstorm the problems that the process has – and document them.

2. Redesign the process

For this step, it’s important to work with the people directly involved in the current process – their ideas are key to understanding potential new approaches, and they’re more likely to be convinced that change is needed, if they’re involved from the outset.

Identify possible solutions and then narrow these down by looking at the potential impact, potential risks, and new potential points of failure within these solutions.

Once everyone has agreed on the final solution, create new diagrams to document it as fully as possible.

3. Implementation

It’s important to plan carefully for implementation. Change is disruptive, even when well planned – and when not planned at all, it can be disastrous.

During planning, identify:

  • Who needs to be involved in the change and what they’ll do
  • What additional resources (people, hardware, software, other items) will be needed in addition, and when they will be needed by
  • Any costs involved, when they need to be paid by, and who will pay them

For larger organisations, a business case may need to be prepared to secure agreement from department heads and other stakeholders, demonstrating why the change is needed and what benefits it will bring.

People can be resistant to change – particularly if they’ve been doing things a different way for some time. Good communication throughout can help with overcoming resistance – to all staff, not just senior managers.

When you are ready, pick a date to roll out the implementation and communicate it to everyone.

During implementation, make sure you’ve allowed enough time if things go wrong, and try and mitigate any risk of that as best as you can beforehand.

4. Finally, review the new process

Closely monitor how things are going, particularly in the early stages after implementation. Rarely will things go perfectly and monitoring will help you identify any further changes needed, before they become a critical issue.

The cycle of continuous improvement

For many reasons, no process is likely to survive indefinitely without needing change – market conditions, changes in staff, changed business focus, improvements in technology, changes in legislation can all impact on effectiveness of processes, and it’s important to recognise that process improvement is a natural cycle in your business – so, when further changes are identified, repeat the steps above as necessary.