Process Improvement

How to select, measure and execute projects that will help transform how your business operates.

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. What is Process Improvement?
  3. Benefits of Process Improvement
  4. Process Improvement Strategy
  5. Business Process Improvement ideas
  6. Process Improvement Tips
  7. Final Thoughts

Introduction

If you’ve spent more than a few days at any office or job, you've probably come across at least a few processes where you've wondered to yourself, "isn’t there a better way to do this?".

Chance are there is, but only about 20% of business undertake process improvement projects each year.

For those that do embark on systematic process improvement, the results can be significant, but not without complication.  According to Kissflow, over 33% business process improvement initiatives fail, with 5% seeing little to no success, 28% seeing departmental success only and 19% experiencing significant difficulties but some eventual success.

Process Ideas on Wall

But there must be a reason for their failures, right

Absolutely.  Most process improvement initiatives fail due to:

  • A lack of understanding of what business process improvement is,
  • Resistance to change from stakeholders across the organization,
  • Failure to properly measure both before and after the engagement,
  • Overly complex implementations,
  • An inability to find simple, scalable improvements

Throughout this guide, we’ll help you understand what process improvement is and isn’t and give you resources and ideas to kick-start your own process improvement initiatives.

What is Process Improvement?

Process Improvement, often referred to as Business Process Improvement (BPI), is the proactive task of identifying, evaluating and iterating upon an existing business process to improve its performance or alignment with organizational strategy and customer expectations. Unlike Process Reengineering, process improvement’s aim is to optimize an existing business process without completely or radically redesigning the underlying function.

Although BPI is typically linked with common process improvement methodologies such as Six Sigma, Lean Management, and Kaizen, the act of improving processes is agnostic and can be undertaken by organization big-and-small, often with the assistance of new technology and/or simple adjustments.

Benefits of Process Improvement

There are a variety of reasons why your company should look at process improvement, but we’ve created a list of five of the most beneficial reasons to consider.

Let's dive in.

 

Productivity

Do everyday tasks like filling out paper forms and running reports confuse and frustrate your employees? Have the same problematic processes been pushed downstream under the guise of “self-service” for your customers to navigate independently?

These activities can easily take hours to complete, wasting value employee time and risk the loss of customers to organizations that offer easier/frictionless processes.  One survey found that employees spend an average of 520 hours per year on repetitive tasks that could easily be automated, and those hours only accounted for the most simple of processes like ordering supplies and onboarding employees.

By evaluating these processes, and when necessary, introducing new software, you can automate these tasks, and employees can reallocate time to core aspects of their job.

Productivity

Employee satisfaction

It’s clear that continuing to operate within the status quo, and ignoring the voices and ideas of employees, is a losing combination for any business.  In fact, organizations with highly engaged teams show over 20% higher profitability and 59% less turnover than those that do not.

The first step towards improving employee satisfaction is eliminating the red tape and allowing employees to focus 100% on their work. Not only does this make for increased productivity and a happier workforce, but it can also surface new and more impactful data about the core health of an organization.  Once symptomatic processes have been improved or even eliminated, it’s easier to determine how well aligned overall operations are with the needs of your customers and the market at large.

 

Customer satisfaction

Similar to employee satisfaction, with leaner processes and increased productivity, your systems and your employees are better equipped to focus on the customer. This increased attention from staff, along with technology that supports the intended business objective and overall processes that run the way your customers just expect a business to work, will help create a new level of satisfaction amongst existing customers and offer the possibility of attracting new customers to your business.

 

Agility

The reality of the current market is that organizations are constantly faced with the need to change how they deliver services. Nimble processes are an essential component for staying competitive.

The ideal state of any process improvement undertaking is not “one-and-done”, but rather to develop a truly continuous process improvement framework that works for your organization.

Often, the first round of improvements focus on - or necessitates - the addition of new Business Process Management (BPM) tools to enable the change that’s required.  However, as new evaluations occur, and new opportunities arise, your ability to stay agile and act upon those chances is what will ultimately set you apart.



Reduced risk

Inefficiency and risk often go hand-in-hand.

  • Maybe your employees are manually transferring information between systems, resulting in mistakes that take hours to fix.
  • Maybe your customers are mailing/faxing applications to a head-office requiring re-entry to your systems and/or high rejection (Not in good order) percentages.
  • Maybe your records are dispersed across multiple IT systems preventing a cohesive, omnichannel experience for your customers to engage with you.

Any process that is manual or paper-based lacks controls, increasing the risk of fraud and human error.  By developing a process improvement plan that highlights activities to automate, you can begin reducing human error, adding additional security measures to protect company data and reducing your organization’s overall risk.

Manual Calculations

Now that you understand the benefits of process improvement, let's have a look at how to build your own process improvement strategy.

Process Improvement Strategy

One of the most widely known strategies for process improvement, DMAIC, is the foundation of the Six Sigma school of thought.  While DMAIC - which stands for Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control - is a proven, systematic approach to improving processes, you certainly don’t have to be (or hire) a black-belt to begin improving your business. Instead, consider investing time and resources in the following topics to develop a process improvement plan that works for you.

 

1. Map your existing processes

It’s nearly impossible to fix something if you don’t fully understand how it works. By starting with a business process map, and involving ALL of the stakeholders and employees who engage with the process to confirm the accuracy of the map, you will have a clear picture for how things are working today and where improvements can be made.

For example, when speaking with teams looking for process improvement ideas in banking, it’s common that a facilitator would ask not only the process owners but also the front-line staff (branch, call center, etc) and the back-office teams (risk, AML, data entry) for input on how things are working.  Often, despite the definition of the currently documented process, teams will provide context about how they manually intervene with the current process to “smooth things out”. This type of feedback is invaluable and their steps and ideas can and should be accounted for and incorporated into any upcoming changes.

 

2. Focus on improving customer experience

Behind every unhappy customer lays a broken business process.

When evaluating your existing processes, always keep an eye on whether or not the process is optimized for the customer.  

Despite all the gains that can be had internally, if your new process does not service your customers in the way they expect, you will be fighting a losing battle.

Start by studying customer behaviors, evaluating the offerings of competitors and whenever possible, simply talking to existing and prospective clients. Process improvement is not an academic exercise. You need to be willing to engage as many people as possible and be flexible, to arrive at a solution that makes life better for everyone involved.



3. Create a hierarchy of processes

It’s tempting to start with the most complex/problematic processes, but often those also require the most complex and time-consuming solutions.  Instead, as you evaluate your processes, consider categorizing them based off of complexity and proposed solution.

Process Hierarchy

Often, processes identified as simple can be improved by simply tweaking a small step or providing better context to those who interact with it.

Intermediate degree processes may require actual change, and/or technology, but an iteration may only take a matter of weeks.  

Think about manual processes, like improving how people find-and-fill paper forms.  Moving these processes to an eForms solution may only require a few resources and your first form may be usable in weeks.  If you evaluate the number of people that engage with this process, the number of similar processes throughout the organization and the cumulative time/cost saved through improvement, this might end up having a higher impact that the processes deemed as complex.

Complex processes are a risky endeavor.  Typically, these span across channels/departments and involve multiple technologies and platforms. They also pose the largest risk in delivery because results are often months, if not years, away.  That is not to say you shouldn’t undertake process improvement projects within this category, but consider creating a few wins first to buy yourself and your team the latitude to embark on larger scale projects.

 

4. Be iterative

I hate to have to be the one to tell you this, but you’re going to get it wrong.  But don’t worry, that’s to be expected. Existing processes may be flawed, but often they’ve stayed in place for as long as they have for a reason. Any time you introduce change, especially when you’re embarking on a digital transformation change to a process, you’re introducing new variables and something will almost certainly be missed.

That’s why it’s important to be iterative in your approach to change.  By experimenting, and delivering early and often, you mitigate that risk and have the ability to quickly adapt and correct anything that was initially missed.

Now that you have an idea of how to build your process improvement strategy, let’s have a look at some ideas to get you started.

Business Process Improvement ideas

While there is no “right way” or silver bullet for starting down your process improvement journey, the following are ideas and examples to help inspire you to make an impact in any industry or job function.

 

Reduce paper with digital documents

It’s no secret, everyone hates paperwork! That’s why one of the first places you should look for process improvement is anywhere that still require employees or customers to find and complete paper documents.  

Process Improvement and Paperwork

These processes are often built around some internal need; whether that’s a need directly within your organization, or a need resulting from government oversight.  Regardless of why the paper process is currently in use, there are often significant and sustained improvements to be had by digitizing both the front-end (how people provide information) and the back-end (how the information is consumed internally) of the process.

An eForm/Smart Form in place of a legacy paper form may enable:

  1. Receipt of documents within minutes or hours instead of days
  2. The ability to accurately process a greater number of applications
  3. The elimination of processing costs from shipping paperwork
  4. No potential loss of documents as they are secure and accessible online by your customers and your organization
  5. Retention and compliance requirements met without the need for voluminous paper storage

 

Provide omnichannel access to services

Often, individual channels are slated for process improvement individually.  While this may make sense from an internal perspective (your website is managed by one team while the call center is managed by a completely different team across the country), this isn’t how your customers see things.  From your customers’ perspective, the assumption is that whenever they talk to someone from your organization, regardless of the channel, they should/do have access to the same information and offers.

Look for processes where you’re operating a multi-channel strategy, but your customers are expecting an omnichannel solution.

A recent award-winning process re-design lead by Bridgeable demonstrates how a unified approach to phone renewals can transform customer satisfaction.  Maybe your company is ripe for a similar approach.

 

Automate & simplify decision making

Are applications and approvals part of your organization’s workflow?  If so, there are many ways to simplify and automate decision making at the point of origination.

Some organizations have changed their processes to include an “Approve then Validate” model. By creating automated approval thresholds and shifting the burden of approvals to a downstream activity, these organizations are reducing one of the most frictional stages of user acquisition and streamlining the work that’s required to validate and move accounts forward.

There are also opportunities to bring new, data-rich technologies and approaches to every decision throughout your organization. By finding ways to integrate disparate systems, you should be able to have a more complete picture of your customers and as such, improve how and target, engage and communicate across the board.

 

Transform onboarding

Whether it’s the onboarding of new clients or the onboarding of new staff, little is more important than first impressions.

Onboarding Welcome Sign

While some areas of onboarding can be fixed with the ideas above (eliminating paper forms, enabling omnichannel access), onboarding offers unique opportunities for process improvement both because of its high visibility (and thus, easier access to budgets) and because it often requires both a human and technological approach.

Not sure how important onboarding really is?  A recent study by Glassdoor found that organizations with a strong onboarding process improve new hire retention by 82 percent and productivity by over 70 percent.

Process Improvement Tips

The Internet is awash with consultants, frameworks, and business process improvement tools all vying for your attention, and wallet, while promising to solve your BPI woes.  While many are probably fantastic, there are some tips and tricks you can start using today as you explore your options and dive deep into your process improvement decision making.

Below are a handful of the most useful tips/advice from the experts (in no particular order)


1. Start with action in the technical system; follow quickly with cultural change

Let’s face it, it’s probably easier to control the technology.  Seriously though, process improvement does often involve technology and applications, even when others internally are reluctant.  Start here, as the successes can come fast and be significant, but quickly move towards an overall change in culture as you’ll need support to truly move things forward.

 

2. Ensure that all members of staff are correctly coached

Regardless of whether you’re following a Lean/Process Improvement methodology or going it alone, it’s important to make sure everyone on your team and staff is knowledgeable and coached to provide the best possible results. There are many pitfalls along the way, so your success and ability to make changes is only as strong as the team behind it.

 

3. Establish communication and feedback channels early

As mentioned earlier, the ultimate goal here isn’t “one-and-done”.  If your program is going to develop into true continuous process improvement, you’re going to need open and honest communication across the organization.  When you’re willing to listen, you’ll find that your organization is full of opinioned and passionate people, all of whom are affected when you start changing processes.  Make sure there are avenues for them to share their thoughts, ideas, and opinions.

 

4. Make change mandatory

There are many ways to incentivize teams and employees to make a change, but often these programs only reward the behaviors of the same people who would have been likely participants even without an incentive.  To truly create change across the organization, make change mandatory. This doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Jeff Bezos’ famous mandate that teams only communicate via APIs (though, how did that work out for Amazon?  Objectively pretty good..), but making the idea of change and process improvement a core requirement of every position could lead to truly unbelievable results.

 

5. Prepare for resistance

There’s always an “old guard” or a middle management layer that’s going to resist change.  There are going to be people expecting or hoping for failure during implementation. Truthfully, there’s nothing you can do to avoid this, but you can be prepared. Being armed with qualifiable and quantifiable data is a great start.  Also, finding internal senior champions from day one is a necessity.

 

6. Create a positive and responsive atmosphere

While some love the challenge of creating and trying something new, others are terrified.  By creating a positive and welcoming atmosphere around your process improvement initiatives, you can encourage new and diverse voices to join you around the table.

 

7. Be Data Driven

If you’ve read this far, this is probably a given.  Data is going to be at the center of everything you do. When it comes to process improvement, you absolutely must focus your efforts around what the data is telling you.  Just because someone says a process is broken, doesn’t mean it actually is.  Collect and use data to make everything you do smarter.  Plus, if you don’t have data on your key business processes, well, then I’m pretty sure I know what your first improvement ought to be…

 

8. Don’t celebrate too early and don’t give up too soon.

Seriously.  It’s going to take time to get things right.  Make sure you are thoughtful and thorough in your work and don’t get caught in the trap of assuming you’ll see results immediately, or quitting because it’s harder than you thought.  


While it is a long game, you can certainly take steps to improve your odds and see results sooner.  Remember to categorize your potential projects and look for low hanging fruit. Not only do you need to establish a process improvement process, which is much easier to do during early/easier transformations, but you also want to have some successes under your belt to help sway any detractors when you take on the more challenging projects.

Final Thoughts

Now that you have a broad understanding of business process improvement and the benefits it can bring to your organization, it’s time to start looking for areas that require attention.  Remember, in order to be successful, you’re going to need to measure and report on it.  

When you’re ready, it's also worth exploring the vast array of business process improvement software that exists to make your life easier.  Sure we’re a little biased on that topic, but seriously, it doesn’t matter if you need Smart Forms (what we offer) or a new enterprise-wide machine learning solution (um, nope, that’s not what we do).  There are organizations devoting every hour of every day towards making solutions that will dramatically reduce the time, effort, and mistakes you’re bound to make.  Explore what’s already out there before you try to build your own.  Chances are if you build it yourself, it’ll become the process that's on the list of things “needing improvement” within a year or two.

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