Enterprises are only as strong as their processes. After all, they run thousands of them, often from multiple locations which have thousands of employees and a broad range of customers.
Process improvement has long been top of mind for companies across all industries that want to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and deliver greater value. Process improvement by itself, however, is simply a buzzword. It needs a structural approach to achieve its desired ends.
To inject structure and strategy into improvement efforts, enterprises can choose from dozens of process improvement methodologies, such as Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen, and others. Regardless of which methodology ultimately is selected, though, it is essential for it to adhere to nine key principles of continuous process improvement needed to realize operational excellence and build a foundation for continuous improvement.
Define how work is being done – While it seems unbelievably simple, many organizations don’t know how work is being done. And unfortunately, you can’t improve work if you don’t know what that work is or what it looks like. Given that, any continuous process improvement initiative depends on how much effort is put into discovering, documenting, and digitizing workflows to create a baseline and visualize how work is being performed.
Define your desired outcome and understand your problem – Before making any modifications in an organization’s processes, it is essential to define the desired outcome. Does the company want to improve execution quality? Reduce errors? Increase execution speed? Bottom line, identifying what the problem areas are and what changes need to be made is impossible if the organization doesn’t know what it wants to accomplish.
Connect your process improvement initiatives to larger business objectives – Even at a granular level, process improvement should be connected to over-arching business objectives, such as cost reduction, increases in efficiency, and digital transformation. Doing so will justify the effort and demonstrate explicit, tangible results which, in turn, will help to ensure C-level executive buy-in.
Make process improvement customer-centric – Improving the customer experience should always be high on any list of business objectives. Given that, any process changes should be tied to how they benefit the customer, regardless of whether referring to internal customers (employees, shareholders) or external users (consumers, vendors, etc.).
Make subject matter experts and process owners a vital part of process improvement – The knowledge of those who execute and own the processes is integral to any continuous process improvement initiative. Their collaboration should extend beyond the definition phase of process excellence to incorporate identifying the problem and defining the solution.
Empower employees and use their ideas – Because the process owners and employees executing specific workflows have the greatest understanding of the processes used, they should always be involved in helping process analysts to understand process issues and identify the most effective ways to improve them. Leaning on them for advice also makes them more engaged in continuous process improvement and facilitates their buy-in, thus eliminating employee resistance when the modified processes are actually deployed.
Focus on incremental improvements over mass change – Rather than massive changes, continuous process improvement is more effective when it relies on smaller, incremental adjustments. Small changes take less time and, therefore, are more economical and quicker to apply, resulting in faster returns. Employees are also more willing to adapt to minor changes, as opposed to a major overhaul. And if a small change doesn’t produce the desired result, it is easier to reconcile than a big change. Ultimately, continuous, small changes will amplify over time, producing better and greater results in the long-term.
Continuous process improvement is never-ending – Improved processes must be revisited on a regular basis and have additional improvements applied to them in order to maintain the momentum and continue the process of never-ending operational excellence.
Measure, monitor, repeat – The incremental changes applied to processes must be assessed and scrutinized continually in order to ensure that the intended returns and benefits are being realized. Numerous tools are available to analyze the changes already applied and prioritize future improvements.
It is equally important for the enterprise to choose a process improvement strategy (or strategies) that will deliver the greatest value once a process has been analyzed and its value assessed.
These strategies are designed to:
Modernize processes by extracting them from legacy environments and re-platforming them onto more efficient, modern technologies;
Optimize processes by leveraging predictive analytics and simulation capabilities to tune improvements before implementation occurs;
Standardize processes by leveraging the commonalities of its processes to drive consistency, improve quality, and increase execution times; and
Automate processes by removing all human inputs, which limit the potential for errors while increasing quality and speed of delivery and minimizing costs.
Clearly, continual process improvement is not as simple as choosing a methodology, deploying it, and then moving on. A great deal of thought and incremental steps designed to include all stakeholders in the initiative must be taken. But for those enterprises willing to put in the time and consider all of the internal and external factors at play, the ability to understand how work gets done and how that work can be improved through structured optimization provides the key to increased efficiency, reduced costs, and continual evolution in a rapidly changing world.