Businesses have always looked at ways to improve, to either save cost or improve operating performance. The drive for improvement is even greater today due to the current economic climate we find ourselves in.
Traditional buzz words such as process re-engineering and process improvement are becoming part of every day language once again, as organisations try to become leaner.
The challenge faced by organisations when applying these improvement techniques is that the world we find ourselves in today is very different to when these approaches were first defined. Organisations are no longer stand alone entities, most are now part of a large ecosystem with complex interdependencies, spread in some cases across the globe.
Has this complexity made us focus on the wrong areas and have we lost sight of our customer?
Should we still focus on the process or is another way of thinking needed to give us the competitive advantage we are all seeking.
To understand this a bit more we first need to understand the origins of process improvement and why it’s still considered an important discipline.
Before we dive in we should explain what a business process actually is and what it represents in the wider context.
A business process or business method is a collection of related, structured activities or tasks that produce a specific service or product (serve a particular goal) for a particular customer or customers. A process is thus a specific ordering of work activities across time and place, with a beginning, an end, and clearly defined inputs and outputs: a structure for action. (Refer: Wiki)
Put simply it is “how” the organisation delivers its business capabilities.
The business process typically consists of nine major attributes:
- Process goal – Objective of the process i.e. its purpose
- Process initiator – The resource that triggers an event i.e. customer
- Events – An event either starts a process, or happens during a process flow, or ends a process flow
- Defined input / information – Information associated with the event
- Resource consumed – Resources performing the process i.e. people, systems…
- Measures – Performance aspects of the process i.e. key performance indicators
- Defined business rules – Used to guide behaviour, shape judgements and make decisions when performing the process
- Controls & risks – Risks associated with the business process. These risks are either managed or controls are put in place to mitigate the risk.
- Defined output – A business process will typically produce one or more outputs, either for internal use or to satisfy external requirements.
The other thing to consider is that a process is a form of action, we are basically doing something. This differs from the business capability approach as we are no longer describing “what” our business does but “how” it does it.
To reflect this the process always follows a verb noun naming convention i.e.validate order.
All that seems pretty straight forward but how do we know our process is performing as we expect? Could we improve it somehow?
Business process improvement
More and more organisations are now looking to start business process initiatives but what is process improvement and is this something new?
You will be surprised to know that the concept of improving processes is not a new thing and has in fact been around for centuries. Many of the ideas behind process improvement can be traced back 100 years to the production lines of Henry Ford, and even earlier
So what is process improvement?
Process improvement means simply, making things better. When an organisation engages in true process improvement their aim is to understand what causes things to happen in a process and to use this knowledge to reduce variation, remove activities that contribute no value to the product or service produced.
The ideal outcome of any process improvement initiative is that jobs can be performed cheaper, quicker, easier and most importantly, safer.
To understand process performance we spend a large amount of time reviewing and analysing data to spot trends and possible reasons for the failure.
One of the key factors in this exercise is to ensure you have sufficient data over a period of time, to confirm what you are seeing is really a failure.
Why is this important you may ask?
Well it might be that we review a process during a seasonal period or when an unexpected event occurred, this could result in the process taking longer (cycle time) than usual.
Without a large spread of data there is a temptation to base our findings on these isolated occurrences. Taking an isolated approach could result in wrong choices being made due to misleading data, which could impact the process instead of improving it.
However what is sometimes forgotten is that in most cases there is a human element to the process, this can either be the end customer or the person who is performing the process.
By focusing on the data have we missed the human interactions?
What if the extra time taken we saw in the data was due to a customer service agent providing an extra level of customer service to a customer? Rather than take this out could we make this a unique selling point of our service and focus on better ways of providing this experience?
Clearly we need to think beyond data and focus a bit more on the human side of change.
To understand the human sides of change we need to look to other industries to helps us
The award-winning global design firm IDEO uses an approach called ‘Design Thinking”, this technique brings together what is desirable from a human point of view with what is technologically feasible and economically viable.
In IDEOs own words:
“Design thinking is a deeply human process that taps into abilities we all have but get overlooked by more conventional problem-solving practices. It relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that are emotionally meaningful as well as functional, and to express ourselves through means beyond words or symbols. Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking provides an integrated third way”
This sounds perfect, does this mean we should completely ditch process improvements and the wider architecture in favour of design thinking?
Or should we put our designers hat on and try something a little different?
Design thinking + process improvement = innovation
The combination of process improvement and design thinking can bring significant benefits. Process-centric tools combined with deep customer empathy can lead to processes that are better designed due to the focus on the experience.
Design thinking can also benefit from the discipline and structure that process improvement techniques provide. Business process management emphasises the ongoing measurement of processes and the introduction of controls to help ensure consistency. These techniques help ensure that a well-designed process continues to perform well and delight customers.
In addition to processes we are able to align the business model (including idenitity) and the various business structures i.e. capabilities. This enables us to keep the big picture in mind when making changes but we can also leverage the standard content when performing the various design thinking tasks.
The “so what” moment
What is clear is that most organisations are looking to make efficiency savings and provide better services. Whilst savings can be made by simply cutting budgets, this method does not address the need to improve services and in many cases is likely to do the opposite.
By combining process improvement with a more human centric approach we are able to refocus our improvements on what customers and our users need. This enables us to realign activities to where they best add value for the organisation but importantly the customer and their experience.
There are some additional benefits worth noting:
- People focused: As soon as we forget that people – living, feeling, emotive human beings are involved throughout the chain of events, not just at the moment of use by the customer, things go wrong. Combining the human centric design process with a logical discipline ensures we keep the customer in focus when we make or propose changes.
- Focus on the real value add: By understanding what is really valuable to users and customers we can apply process improvement techniques to remove genuine waste from the process, without impacting the experience for the user and the end customer.
- Improved customer experience: Applying a customer focused process improvement approach ensures that we operate at an optimal performance level which not only keeps costs low but still delights the customer.
- Measurable: Once we have identified the source of the problem through user research and various process monitoring we can then apply process improvement techniques to help us understand the nature of the problems and what benefits can be realised, through the use of accurate measurements.
- Control: Through the use of benchmarking and process controls we can monitor the process performance. This enables us to identify possible future process improvements but also ensure we are providing the customer a good level of service, which can be measured.
- Business model alignment: We are able to keep the big picture in mind when making process changes. This ensures changes which are made do not impact the growth strategy, various customer segments, value propositions and the overall brand identity of the organisation.
Organisations who know what their customers need and manage to deliver that again and again efficiently, succeed.
They succeed not because satisfied customers are more likely to become loyal customers, but also because they are also more likely to commend the service to others, which is the goal of every organisation.
- Business Model Image and Design Thinking Quotes/IDEO
- Andrew Polaine, Lavrans Lovlie, and Ben Reason/Service Design: From Insight to Implementation, published by Rosenfield Media, LLC