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What Is Process Optimization? Types, Steps, and Challenges

May 17, 2024

process optimization

We are constantly engaged in processes.

That cup of joe you made this morning before diving into your daily tasks? A process.

The onboarding of your latest client? A process.

The budget planning for this quarter? You guessed it; that’s a process, too.

A team’s set of processes dictates what they do, why they do it, and how. To put it simply, processes are the backbone of any team. But are your daily processes optimized? Are they meaningfully reviewed regularly, and is success being measured?

If the answer is no, you need process optimization.

The good news is that it's not a manual process. Tools like business process management software can define and automate this optimization process for you. You can get an overview of your company and narrow it down to departments needing the most support.

Before discussing process optimization in detail, it’s essential to understand how the word “process” is defined fully.

What is a process?

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a process as “a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular end.”

Going back to the earlier example of making coffee, that process started with you either grabbing a mug out of the cupboard or preparing the boiling water. By the end of it, you could enjoy a cup of coffee and start the day off on the right foot. It was a collection of tasks you needed to carry out to get what you wanted (or, depending on your caffeine compulsion, needed).

There are countless ways to adjust any given process so that it’s objectively better, from eliminating certain tasks to adding new ones, rewriting a particular step in the process, or reordering the process’s order of tasks to improve the overall flow. Either way, process optimization aims to make business operations more efficient, more effective, and less complicated, time-consuming, and wasteful.

Types of process optimization methods

There are several different methodologies and tools used for process optimization, each with its own strengths and applications. Here are some of the most common types:

1. Six sigma

This data-driven approach focuses on minimizing defects and variations in a process. It uses statistical analysis to identify and eliminate root causes of problems, aiming for an incredibly low defect rate (less than 3.4 defects per million opportunities). It follows a DMAIC cycle: define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. 

2. Lean manufacturing

Lean manufacturing originated in the auto industry and focuses on eliminating waste and maximizing process value. It emphasizes continuous improvement and streamlining workflows to reduce lead times, improve quality, and cut costs.  Lean principles can be applied to any process, not just manufacturing.

3. Total quality management

Total quality management (TQM) is a customer-centric approach to process optimization that focuses on continuous improvement throughout all areas of a business. It involves all employees in the process improvement effort and emphasizes meeting customer needs and expectations.

4. Business process management

Business process management (BPM) is a popular and holistic approach to process optimization that involves identifying, modeling, analyzing, and improving business processes. It provides a framework for managing and optimizing processes across an entire organization.

5. Continuous improvement (Kaizen)

Kaizen is a Japanese philosophy that emphasizes continuous improvement. It's based on the idea that small, incremental changes can lead to significant improvements over time. Kaizen encourages all employees to identify and suggest ways to improve their work processes.

6. Process mapping

Process mapping is visually helpful for documenting and analyzing processes. It involves creating a flowchart or diagram that shows all the steps involved in a process, as well as the decision points and handoffs. Process mapping tools can help identify bottlenecks, redundancies, and opportunities for improvement.

7. Process mining

Process mining tools use data to extract knowledge about real-world processes. It can identify inefficiencies, variations, and bottlenecks in a process and help improve the accuracy and completeness of process maps.

How to do business process optimization yourself

Before we get into the nuts and bolts of undergoing process optimization, here's a question: are you worried about how long process optimization will take?

If so, don’t be.

Business process optimization doesn’t have to be time-consuming, taking hours and hours out of your already busy schedule. All you have to do is dip into process optimization every quarter to revolutionize your processes! Plus, practice makes perfect; you’ll do it quicker each time.

Now, if you underwent Six Sigma Black Belt training and wanted to use a myriad of Six Sigma tools such as process mining, FMEA, and value stream mapping, that’s when process optimization would take a significantly larger amount of time. To get the best of both worlds – going about process optimization in a Six Sigma-approved manner in the most time-efficient way possible – you’ll want to follow the DMAIC methodology.

DMAIC
 

I’m about to explain the DMAIC method in the following 6 steps so you can optimize your processes properly.

1. Ensure processes are documented

For DMAIC to work—and for any process optimization method, strategy, or process to work—you’ll need to have documented your processes first.

Business processes can be documented with widely-known programs such as Google Docs or even Microsoft Excel, but considering the plethora of software out there, such as BPM software, that makes documenting, using, optimizing, and managing your processes a breeze, opting for a purpose-built tool is worth your while.

But what’s most important here is getting your processes down, detailed, and documented. After all, you can’t actually optimize your processes if you can’t physically see how they work, what’s involved, and what the current iteration of each process is.

Not only is documenting your processes integral for DMAIC and process improvement but there are a ton of added everyday pluses that come from doing so.

For instance, think back to earlier when I discussed how optimized processes can make onboarding, in particular, faster and better. When the onboarded hire starts undertaking the same work-related processes and tasks as their colleagues, they’ll get to grips with everything if there are documented processes to follow and the instructions for what do simply haven’t been passed down by worth-of-mouth.

Similarly, let’s say a different employee can’t remember a certain step of a process. Instead of asking their manager what to do (and thereby distracting the manager from whatever they’re working on), the uncertain employee can refer back to the documented process. It’ll refresh their memory, reduce any anxiety they may have had, and prompt them to do what needs to be done!

Needless to say, documented processes aren’t just downright useful — they’re necessary.

2. Define which process should be optimized

Once business processes have been sufficiently documented, it’s time to start DMAIC itself and define which process you’ll optimize first.

In the beginning, it may seem a little overwhelming – especially considering there are potentially tens, hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of processes to optimize. That’s why it’s best to create a list of key processes to optimize and then work your way down the list.

To figure out this list, ask yourself:

  • Which processes are used most frequently? Specifically, how many days a week? How many times a day? By how many team members?
  • What processes have the highest output? That is, which processes have end goals that are the most crucial for the business to not just stay afloat but thrive?
  • Which processes have the highest ROI? Which processes are you getting the most financial benefit from once they’ve been completed?
  • Which could contribute to ROI growth if improved? Which processes, if optimized, could become some of your most important, most useful processes when it comes to generating ROI?

Do keep in mind that, to avoid overload and scrambling your brain, you’ll want to optimize your processes one by one. Otherwise, keeping on top of multiple processes could prove difficult and could cause you to make mistakes and do further damage to your business processes.

Once you’ve created your list, the process at the very top—be it onboarding clients or creating a project management plan—is the one you’ll be optimizing first, so define it: Write down the name of the process, its goal, how it starts and ends, who it involves, and what it involves. Provide yourself and others you’re working with with the process’s basic but critical information.

3. Measure how the process performs

Data is at the heart of DMAIC, so it’s only right that you measure how the process is faring early on. This provides a benchmark for how the process is working before any changes are implemented. Thankfully, measuring a process is not as hard as it sounds.

First, you’ll need to gather quantitative data. This can easily be done by measuring the process against its KPIs (you should already have 2-3 KPIs per objective). If you don’t have any key performance indicators for this, however, think about the expected outputs of the process in question: is the process achieving those outputs as intended? Is it doing so in an appropriate time frame? Is it failing to meet expected outputs at all? Basically, this is the point where you’ll want to consider the process in a critical way, backed up with quantifiable data.

Then, it’s time for qualitative data. Gathering qualitative data is far less daunting than it sounds, too. For instance, one straightforward way of getting the data you need is to ask users and/or the process owner how they feel it performs. They may be able to immediately tell you what it’s like to use the process frequently, what any issues are, and whether or not it’s successful as a process.

After measuring the process’ performance, keep all the facts and figures you’ve obtained somewhere safe (read: don’t write them on paper that’ll inevitably go walkabout and never be seen again—use a proper solution for documenting information).

4. Analyze how it can be optimized

In the last part – the measurement step – you found good data on how the process is performing without doing any first-hand tests yourself. But that’ll now change with this analysis step, as it’s here where you and anyone you’re working with will run through the process. 

As you run through the process with an analytical, critical eye, you’ll naturally notice where the process isn’t as good as it should be. But seeing as you’re a first-timer when it comes to process optimization and DMAIC, to help you out, here are some guidelines for what to consider and analyze:

  • How long does it take to complete the process? Is it in an appropriate time frame? Is it slower or faster than expected?
  • Where do bottlenecks occur? If the process is a multi-person process, is there a point where one member of staff can’t continue with their tasks because somebody else is taking too long to complete theirs?
  • Are any steps confusing or written in a bewildering way, causing the process user to perform tasks poorly or to skip them outright?
  • Are there any wasteful steps? Often called “Muda”—the Japanese for ‘waste’—in Six Sigma circles, wasteful steps result in any one of the seven forms of Muda (waste of overproduction, waste of time on hand, waste of transportation, waste of processing itself, waste of stock at hand, waste of movement, and waste of making defective products). Are these wasteful steps and tasks present in your process?
  • Can parts of the process be automated? Automation is a brilliant, forward-thinking way of optimizing a process. McKinsey even discovered that 45% of activities can easily be automated with current technology. All you need to get started is to integrate one tool—let’s say CRM software—with another with webhooks, API, or even with a third-party tool that integrates separate apps for you.

5. Improve the process

The penultimate stage of DMAIC – improvement – is all about acting on the data, information, and insight you’ve gathered in the previous steps and making beneficial process changes.

One fundamental piece of advice I have is to test the changes before you implement them. By testing them beforehand, you’ll confirm whether the changes you think you should make will actually benefit the process in question.

Seeing as you’ve documented the process you’re optimizing, testing the changes is easy. Just make a copy of the documented process, adjust it as necessary, and then get the usual process users to follow the process with the changes.

Once they’ve done so, gather their feedback to see whether the adjustments have had a positive impact or not. With the changes that were deemed as a success, you’ll want to deploy, deploy, deploy!

6. Control future process performance

Control is the last part of DMAIC. Think of it as the point where you’ll tie up any loose knots, communicate with others about the process changes, and ensure your now-optimized process is measured properly going forward.

In terms of tying up loose knots, do you need to get anybody else’s approval before unleashing the optimized process and having everyone follow it? If so, send the documented process their way. While it may take a little more time if they come back with additional suggestions or ideas, it’s an extra quality management step, which is undeniably helpful.

Then, you’ll want to let users of the process know what’s happened, why the process has been changed, and answer any questions about the updated process. If you don’t inform process users about the updates you’ve made, not only will they be surprised, but they could decide, out of pure confusion, to not follow updated steps properly. This would undo all the time and effort you put into process optimization in the first place.

To ensure the process is measured and performs well going forward, a simple way is to undergo process optimization again in the next quarter. Then, you’ll be able to improve upon the process (if any improvements can be made). There will be instances when no further improvements can be made, which the measure and analysis steps will let you know about. Either way, for true process optimization and control, regularly reviewing and optimizing the processes is a must.

Now, give yourself a high-five – you’ve completed the DMAIC steps for process optimization!

Benefits of process optimization

As long as there’s a commitment to optimizing your team’s business processes properly and regularly, then you’ll open your team up to a whole host of business-changing benefits.

Increased productivity

Employees won’t just complete their processes faster, but their output will yield stronger results, too. As an example, let’s say a member of the sales team is onboarding a new hire, and they’re following an onboarding process that’s recently been optimized. By taking out the original steps that resulted in bottlenecks, the new hire can be trained up faster, meaning they’re able to get straight into doing good work, which you can then reap the financial benefits of!

Reduced error

If a process hasn’t been critically examined, there could be steps that actively cause the person following it to carry out a task they shouldn’t or to do it in a way they no longer should. But by continually reviewing, optimizing, and updating your business processes, inconsistencies and inaccuracies that lead to error are entirely removed.

More agility

In the contemporary world of business, acting slowly doesn’t cut the mustard. Agility, instead, is key; you need to change and adapt constantly. Agile teams have a higher chance of being in the top quartile when it comes to organizational health (organization health, if you don’t already know, is an indicator of long-term high performance). Luckily, the very nature of undergoing process optimization regularly means you’re enabling your processes—and your team at large—to be more agile.

Establish and further a culture of processes

To have a culture of processes, you must take your business processes seriously, ensuring they’re documented, widely used, and optimized over time. Optimizing your business processes is an undeniably important part of establishing and then furthering a culture of processes within your team.

Improved bottom-line

Let’s cut to the chase: the improvements made to processes as part of process optimization have a direct, positive impact on your business’s bottom line. 

While these benefits will surely get eager team leaders interested in process optimization, the real driving force for undergoing process optimization should be that not taking care of business processes causes damage. From using weak, clunky processes every single day to having all employees unknowingly waste crucial time and effort, doing nothing about your outdated, unoptimized processes can drag the entire business down.

Process optimization, then, is about bettering business processes. But it’s about harm reduction, too.

Challenges of process optimization

While process optimization offers significant benefits, implementing it effectively can be tough. By being aware of its challenges and taking steps to mitigate them, you can increase your chances of successfully optimizing your processes and reaping the rewards of improved efficiency and effectiveness.

  • Resistance to change: People are often creatures of habit, and any changes to familiar workflows can be met with resistance.  This can be due to fear of the unknown, concerns about job security, or simply a dislike for disruption.
  • Lack of resources: Process optimization can be resource-intensive, requiring time, effort, and sometimes financial investment in new technologies or training.  This can be a challenge for organizations with limited resources.
  • Inaccurate data: Data is essential for identifying inefficiencies and measuring the success of optimization efforts. However, inaccurate or incomplete data can lead to poor decision-making.
  • Lack of leadership buy-in: Process optimization initiatives can flounder without the support of leadership. Executive buy-in is crucial for securing resources, overcoming resistance to change, and ensuring the project's long-term success.
  • Unforeseen consequences: Sometimes, changes implemented during process optimization can have unintended consequences.  For example, streamlining a process might lead to a decline in quality, or automating tasks might create job redundancies.
  • Short-term focus: Process optimization is an ongoing process, not a one-time fix.  Organizations that focus solely on short-term gains may miss out on the long-term benefits of continuous improvement.
  • Neglecting the human side: People carry out processes, so it's important to consider the human element during optimization. Failing to involve employees in the process or neglecting their needs can lead to resistance and hinder the initiative's success.

Moving forward as a process-oriented company

By reading through and following the instructions given in this post, you’ve set yourself up for success by becoming a process-orientated company.

Specifically, you’ve discovered just how crucial solid processes are for your daily operations – not to mention your bottom line – and you’ve documented your integral business processes. Most noteworthy, though, is that you’ve started to make your way through the processes, optimizing and improving them step-by-step!

With this new-found culture of processes, here’s to doing the best work possible, boosting team collaboration, and boosting productivity. Plus, if you ever decide—or are required—to start using quality management systems such as ISO 9001, the endeavor will be painless.

Time to outrun the crowd

Processes are the backbone of your team, and the processes they undergo every day determine their overall success. Not improving and optimizing frequently used, essential processes are actively turning down the opportunity to work better, faster, and more intelligently. In fact, outdated and inefficient processes waste nearly a third of employees’ time each working day.

By following the DMAIC method for process improvement outlined above, you can get and keep your processes in check—always. To ensure that process optimization—in addition to documenting, using, and managing your processes—remains plain sailing, you’ll want to utilize a dedicated BPM tool.

Make the best use of workflow automation to enhance your business's daily productivity levels.


This article was originally published in 2020. It has been updated with new information.

business process management software
Don't let your competition soar.

Get the best business process management tools to optimize and automate daily operations with ease.

business process management software
Don't let your competition soar.

Get the best business process management tools to optimize and automate daily operations with ease.

What Is Process Optimization? Types, Steps, and Challenges Is your productivity stuck on repeat? Learn how process optimization can improve your daily workflows and maximize your results. Act now to reclaim time! https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/iStock-1511226415.jpg
Thom James Carter Thom James Carter is a content writer at Process Street, where he writes about processes, systems, SaaS, and all things tech. https://learn.g2.com/hubfs/Google%20Drive%20Integration/G2%20How%20to%20Improve%20Daily%20Operations%20with%20Process%20Optimization-1.png

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