September 11, 2020
Whether you realize it or not, you and your team are constantly engaging in process.
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.
It’s a team’s set of processes that dictate what they do, why they do it, and how so, to put it simply, processes are the backbone of any team.
But are your daily processes optimized? Are they being regularly reviewed in a meaningful way and is success being measured? According to The State of Business Process Management 2018, 93% of respondents said they were engaged in multiple process improvements.
You’re letting competitors gain the lead by not focusing on and optimizing your processes.
That’s why, we'll help you get to grips with process optimization, even if you’ve never come across the term before. We’ll define what process optimization is, why it’s so beneficial, and how to ease into process optimization yourself.
Before getting into the definition of process optimization, it’s paramount to fully understand how the word “process” is defined.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a process as “a series of actions or steps taken in order 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 all so, by the end of it, you could enjoy the 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).
With a solid grasp on what a process is, let’s turn our attention back to process optimization.
Simply put, process optimization is the act of improving business processes. There are countless ways any given process can be adjusted so that it’s objectively better, from taking out certain tasks to adding new ones in, to rewriting a particular step in the process to reordering the process’ order of tasks to improve the overall flow. Either way, process optimization aims to make processes more efficient, more effective, and less complicated, time-consuming, and wasteful.
What’s important to know is that process optimization isn’t some new-fangled nonsense; its roots are in Six Sigma. Six Sigma is a tried-and-tested set of process improvement tools and techniques that’s not only saved companies an unfathomable amount of money over the last few decades.
In fact, The Keefe Group alone reported savings of over 2.5 million dollars, but has dramatically bolstered the daily operations of startups, SMBs, and enterprise-level organizations alike. That’s to say, the benefits of process optimization are pretty remarkable.
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.
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!
If a process hasn’t been looked at critically, there could be steps in a process that’s actively causing the person following it to carry out a task they shouldn’t, or to do it in a way they no longer should be. But by continually reviewing, optimizing, and updating your business processes, inconsistencies and inaccuracies that lead to error are entirely removed.
In the contemporary world of business, acting slowly doesn’t cut the mustard. Agility, instead, is key; you need to constantly change and adapt. Studies show that agile teams have a 70% 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.
To have a culture of processes is to 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 first establishing and then furthering a culture of processes within your team.
Let’s cut to the chase: the improvements made to processes as part of process optimization have a direct, positive impact on your business’ bottom-line. If my earlier mention of The Keefe Group’s savings didn’t make that clear, perhaps knowing that Motorola saved more than 16 billion dollars in costs thanks to process optimization and improvement will.
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.
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 is an acronym that stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control. And it’s the DMAIC method that I’m about to tell you about in the following 6 steps so you can optimize your processes. Properly.
For DMAIC to work – and for any kind of 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. It’s why 96% of companies have documented their business processes in one form or another.
Once business processes have been sufficiently documented, it’s time to start DMAIC itself and define which process you’re going to 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, then work your way down the list.
To figure out this list, ask yourself:
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 a process for 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, the goal of it, how it starts and how it ends, who it involves, and what it involves. Provide yourself and others you’re working with with the process’ basic but critical information.
Data is at the heart of DMAIC, so it’s only right that you’ll measure how the process is faring early on. By doing so, it provides a benchmark for how the process is working before any changes are implemented. Thankfully, it’s not as hard as it sounds to measure a process.
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 owner of the process about how they feel it performs. They may be able to immediately tell you what it’s like to frequently use the process, 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 it on paper that’ll inevitably go walkabout and never be seen again – use a proper solution for documenting information).
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:
The penultimate stage of DMAIC – improve – 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 put them into action. 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 are 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!
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.
For making sure the process is measured and performs well going forward, a simple way is by undergoing process optimization again in the next quarter. Then you’ll be able to improve upon the process (if any improvements can be made, that is). There’ll 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!
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 and 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 endeavour will be a painless one.
Processes are the backbone of your team, and it’s the processes they undergo every day that determines overall success. Not improving and optimizing frequently-used, essential processes is 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, as outlined above, you can get and keep your processes in check. Always. And to make sure that process optimization – in addition to documenting, using, and managing your processes – remains plain sailing, you’ll want to utilize a dedicated BPM tool.
To find out which piece of BPM software best suits your needs, head on over to G2’s nifty page for the best business process management software.
Thom James Carter is a content writer at Process Street, where he writes about processes, systems, SaaS, and all things tech.
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