Get real about your processes… if you really want to improve

Many times when I speak to a business for the first time I have to get past their mask. The mask I am referring to is the perfect business process maps that they cling to. To get into meaningful business improvement activities it is vital that you can get past the process maps that adorn your walls and quality management systems and get into the ‘warts and all’ reality of your business’ activities. This article looks at three areas that can help you jump start your improvement activities when you are mapping out what takes place in your business.

 

Driving delays out of your business

One of the biggest offenders, in my experience, is that of lag. The inclusion of lag into your process maps will add a more realistic dimension of what is going on in your business. As I write this I recall one business that couldn’t figure out why they were late on pretty much all of their contracts; they had factored in all of the work required to deliver the projects, and balanced out the resources required to deliver the contracts, but always failed. Their reality was that the handovers between the departments of their business (and their associated ineffective decision making activities) were bloating how long their projects really took. Ensure lag (and lag related issues) feature in your process maps when you want to improve.

 

Lose the 'hidden' rework to raise productivity

Another missing feature of many of process maps I come across is that of rework. In our imperfect world rework always exists, it uses our resources in a usually less than effective way and stops us from doing what we want to be doing in the first place. Eradicating, or at least minimising, rework is an active goal for most businesses and getting real about it in your business is another key to finding decent improvements to tackle. This is the very same issue that was stopping another of my clients from getting their products delivered on time to their customer. Again, like the last example, this company thought they knew their numbers and were baffled that their performance didn’t meet their plan. In the middle of their process was a rework loop that got lost within the day to day busy-ness of production. By changing some of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) at the team level this became acutely visible, became both manageable and resolvable and their performance changed completely.

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Eradicate confusion from your processes

The final missing item I would like to bring to your attention in this article is that of ambiguity. When process maps are drawn up by a group you often have a number of nodding heads in the room. The process may be captured correctly, but the ownership of the steps may be unclear. The precise operation of the process steps may be unclear or poorly executed. The documentation around a process step may be inadequate or unappreciated. Basically there is a distinct chance that we don’t fully understand what needs to happen for a process step to be executed perfectly. Or, putting it another way, we don’t know what ‘good looks like’ for our process steps. I have sat in many process review meetings where the following question has been raised:

"are we 100% confident that we understand everything we need to know about this process step, including who does what and a written instruction of the step?"

The process maps that live in our formal business systems are great; they're what we should be doing and how we should measure our performance. When it comes to process improvement mapping, however, we shouldn’t only use our manuals. We need to capture all of the niggles and frustrations with our current processes so that we can do something about it. If we get real about our improvements we can manage our way to a higher level performance.

Take the above three ideas (lag, rework and confusion) and take another look at your business processes to see what improvements you can identify today.

Giles Johnston

Smartspeed Consulting Limited

Author of Business Process Re-Engineering and co-creator of the 'StreamLiner' continuous improvement software tool.