12 ways to Improve your Business Processes
“The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” – Helmut Schmidt
In this article, you will find many focus areas for business process improvement. We start by explaining what we consider a business process and how important it is to implement, sustain and improve them.
Depending on your starting point, we suggest how you can get started.
If you want, you can skip this section and go straight to the focus area to improve your key business processes. If you are impatient, go straight to 12 ways to improve your business processes! Alternatively, if you are more interested in the way BPM boost productivity you can go to: 7 Ways Your BPM Can Deliver Productivity Gain.
The world of business processes is all about balancing compliance, productivity and agility in order to support you and your organization in delivering consistent value to your customers, hence improving customer satisfaction.
Business processes or work processes are repetitive series of activities (tasks, meetings, approvals, etc.) that together execute business objectives. Business processes are essential and everyone uses them, whether you are in a small company or a large enterprise. Often most processes are not visible and transparent as their formalization is limited or deprecated.
Too often, business processes stay unformal, unwritten ("in people's minds") and this poses serious challenges such as relying too much on a few key individuals.
Business process improvement (BPI) is often not only linked to the connection of the business process with the company goal and its productivity. But also with its sustainability and the ability for a business process to be well embedded into an organization so that it can strive, evolve and improve over time.
It is better to have a process that works with 80% efficiency and that is here to stay, by evolving with the latest business needs. Rather than a more efficient process that alienates people and is a bit too rigid, which will require a higher one off cost to revamp and update every year or so.
If you need a solid and actionable article check our extensive business process playbook.
Feel free to go straight to the 12 ways to improve your business processes to identify improvement opportunities for your team and organization.
Table of Contents:
1. What is a Business Process?
2. The importance of implementing, sustaining and improving your Business Processes
3. How to get started with your Business Process effort?
4. 12 ways to improve your Business Processes?
What is a Business Process?
First, let us confirm what exactly is a business process.
Let’s first clarify that some experts and practitioners also call business processes work process.
Also, the sum of operational, managerial and supporting processes in one organization is sometimes referred to as the Operating Model of the company.
In simple terms, business processes are repetitive series of activities (tasks, meetings, approvals, etc.) that together execute business objectives.
Many work activities can be considered processes, usually, if they share one or more of the following attributes:
1. They are Repetitive
2. They have Consistent and controlled inputs and outputs
3. They Require specific activities (tasks, meetings, inputs, etc.) to be performed in a specific order
4. They require the Engagement of numerous stakeholders each for their role and skill
5. They can be Replicated several times within an organization, for instance for each part of the business be it a business unit, a country, customers, teams, factories, etc.
6. They are Measurable!
“A business process is not an instance, a project, or a procedure.”
Indeed, the business process defines in which sequence a project’s gates and steps are ordered and what needs to be done at each of these steps.
Procedures explain how each granular step of a process (thus the actual projects following that process) need to be performed.
Projects can also be cycles. For instance, you have numerous operational and managerial activities that need to be performed on a regular basis (daily, weekly, etc.). The cycle level is the same as the project level.
A really challenging aspect of business process management is to understand what really requires a high level of prescription and therefore corresponding documented procedures.
The more your work processes are operational, the more they will benefit from procedures. On the contrary, more managerial and strategic processes will require more liberty from the stakeholder in order to achieve the desired outputs.
Note: business processes that are very operational and can be defined very precisely should be prioritized for applying RPA (Robotic Process Automation) in order to mimic human behaviors, but by getting machines to do it!
Business process examples
Business processes can be found in any field, function and industry.
Below are some examples of mostly managerial business processes:
► Planning: Sales and Operations Planning (S&OP), Integrated Business Planning (IBP), demand planning, project planning, capacity planning, supply planning, etc.
► Product Management: Portfolio management, new product introduction, etc.
► Budgeting & Reporting: Yearly budgeting, financial planning, P&L reporting, etc.
► Strategy deployment &communication: strategic quarterly initiatives; steering committee decision making and communication, company priorities, quarterly updates, etc.
► Sales & Marketing: Go to market review, sales promotion, customer collaboration, campaign management, content marketing, etc.
► Corporate & Social Responsibility
► Risk & Quality Management, Business continuity management
The importance of implementing, sustaining and improving your Business Processes
Many business professionals, practitioners and consultants focus on the design and the implementation of business processes. They want to implement best practices in the context of the organization, its people, its culture and together with the right systems, process improvement tools and data.
Usually, after a few months of piloting the new process, all extra spot resources allocated to supporting the design and implementation move to other parts of the business. This is often a root cause of business process decay.
But this is wrong.
Here are some reasons why it is important to maintain and improve your business processes:
► Get a more enjoyable job
► Be quicker at what you and your team do
► Get a consistent approach & output for your customers
► Ensure you have the right people and skills contributing at the right time
► The same is true for the rest of your team
► Be quicker to react!
► Save or at least optimize resources
Improving business processes can be distilled down to three complementing levers :
1. Make sure you have the right design
Your business process should be simple enough to be understood and executed by people in the organization. The level of prescription needs to be well defined depending on the business process at play, and typically the people involved in the process.
For example, if you need something done by creative people, the process needs to formalize the work that needs do be done to help them streamline and structure their workflow and activities, facilitate communication and feedback gathering, etc.
On the other hand, the methodology won't be the same for something that needs doing a hundred times a day, such as processing invoices. This should be focused on technique and efficiency.
Also, if you are designing a business process standard that will be performed by several parts of your business (example a budgeting process performed by several independent countries in your organization) you may want to proactively make it clear and precise what are the elements that must be done in a specific way (you can use procedures) and what needs to be done but the way to obtain the output is left to the specificities of that particular local entity.
Some examples of famous business process improvement methodologies and tools : Six Sigma (also known as DMAIC), DMADV, PDCA, SIPOC analysis
2. Make your process sustainable
Your process should be embedded and executed consistently to become second nature: what is the point of having the perfect design if it stays in a PowerPoint document on someone’s computer.
To sustain, your process needs to be well understood and specific, the value it brings to the company should be clear to everyone. Whether it is about profitability, cost, work life balance or anything else depending on stakeholders, it is key that everyone adopt the process for the long run as they win more than they lose by doing it.
It is essential that the process is supported by the leadership and enabled by appropriate tools and systems taking the mundane and administrative work out of it as well as nudging people to do their part on time (no one like chasing people every time…).
3. Improve your process continuously
Everyone talks about improving, and I agree it is key. One of the main challenges in organizations around BPI is the implementation of all the identified improvements and suggestions from the different stakeholders.
When a process is not written and depends on people doing things a certain way, to start implementing changes requires someone to remember the changes, to communicate through different mediums and find manual ways to make the change stick.
It is particularly challenging with monthly processes where the opportunity for continual improvement only happens 12 times a year. Having a digital twin of your business processes can be an excellent way to tackle this : improvements to the business process can be implemented in advance using versioning, and only become active in the future at a selected date so all these good ideas are not lost.
Your process will quickly become irrelevant if you don’t continuously improve and fine tune it to the latest business needs. If a business process is not necessary anymore because of a structural change in the business, then it is fine to let it die. On the contrary, if something still needs doing on a regular basis but in a different way, then the design should be strongly updated and you’re back to step 1!
The speed at which you are going through the 3 steps will depend on your company, its maturity and its growth pace.
Note : The principle of continuous improvement of business processes is often referred to as Kaizen, in reference to the Japanese business philosophy which originated in the 1950s.
How to get started with your business process improvement efforts?
If you are just getting started or you feel you need a step change in your business processes right, check out the following (not so easy!) steps:
Perform an organization wide review of your ways of working to categorize and prioritize your business processes.
Select a cross functional team that will be in charge of designing and documenting (ideally digitally!) your business processes. This should include, at least:
► Process frequency
► Process input and outputs
► Process steps and their sequence
► Steps type (task, meeting), inputs and outputs as relevant
► Steps content (agenda, activity, medium, tools, etc.)
► Define roles and responsibilities at process and step level (RACI Matrix)
► Confirm the level of agility v prescription that is left to the people executing the process
► Pilot your business process
► Implement to the rest of the organization as relevant
Then strive to make it sustain and continuously improve it and go back to step 1. as often as necessary for your organization (at least every year, every 6 months would be better)
12 ways to improve your business processes
We have listed below 12 angles to look at your current business process in order to facilitate improvement opportunity identification and prioritization:
1. Start measuring your business processes
What gets measured, gets improved. Here the focus is to define leading KPIs that look at the process productivity, health and compliance to your standard. Once you measure this, root cause analysis and discussions like this will start happening:
a. the process is executing only 70% of the time. Then the conversation should be : Is that because the frequency is not right? Or people are too busy maybe?
b. the process is always late. Why is that? Is this because people are firefighting, because other more important activities need to be done? Because the input is not available at the right time from a system?
c. the level of compliance is only 40% meaning the process gets mostly executed by the “wrong” people. Should we modify the process? Or upskill people, etc.
2. Is your process frequency spot on?
Sometimes we get into the habit of doing some activities on a regular basis. Actually good routines are great. Though, sometimes business process frequency is based on what has always happened. Maybe a weekly process which started due to the pandemic in 2020 could now become a biweekly process, reducing the workload by 50%.
Similarly, maybe a weekly reporting process should be fully automated so that it can be transformed into a less resource hungry daily review, as the report is automatically generated.
3. Are all information and decisions captured and easily retrievable?
We all like having just the right amount of meetings : too much and we feel we're not getting anything done, too little and we feel isolated.
In any case, regardless of the amount of meetings, most people like to quickly return to their work at the end of a meeting and rarely prioritize the documentation of meetings.
Some companies are better at this than others. But one thing is for sure: if you make it easy to capture (ideally semi-automatically) information within the right context (be it a meeting a task, etc.) without getting bogged down with all the administrative burden, documentation this will happen easily.
4. Make sure the right roles and responsibilities are anchored and adhered to
Do you have a clear RACI Matrix (Link to RACI Matrix article) (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed) describing who needs to contribute in what way to the overall process and to each of the steps within it? Ideally you would want to do that not for specific individuals, but to do it against business roles so that your standards stay relevant over time and across the organization.
5. Ensure there's sufficient skin in the game
In tandem with a RACI matrix, it is essential to link monetary and non-monetary incentives to your key processes. If something is really essential for the business then it should also be the same for the staff. If it is essential to the company, it is likely directly or indirectly going to support profitability and/or future growth. Thus aligning peoples' incentives to it can be good. Watch out though, not everything is about incentivizing!
6. Don’t forget past improvement ideas
Often processes are not improving because stakeholders provided suggestions in the past that were discarded or simply not implemented.
Often, this is simply due to the fact that continuous improvement implementation relies on the person responsible for the process or process owner to anchor it by remembering about it in the future and informing people manually, etc.
First, creating a log of all the improvement ideas and why they are considered or discarded, as well as when they should be implemented, is essential. Then, if appropriate, investigate business process management tools that can handle versioning of your business processes so that you can tweak your process now but activate the changes in the future, at the date you select.
7. Make sure all the necessary information is available in one contextualized place
When you need to perform a simple 10min task but you need to spend 50min to gather the date, chase people to send them to you, as well as running a few reports and clean up the data, you just don’t want to get started. Your 10min task gets delayed and often disappears in the abysses.
So making sure all the information for a meeting or task is available easily will have a great impact. It can go from something as simple as a well structured cloud based folder hierarchy, to a more advanced tool creating a working environment that pulls together all the necessary information you need.
8. Automate what does not need to be done by people
Clearly we cannot automate everything. Us humans can do things machines cannot do. Of course machines can recognize dogs now, but it needs a massive amount of data. When you only have scattered ambiguous information we are (for now) still the best.
Instead of trying to be more productive on every process, you could simply plug a robot (Robotic Process Automation, also called RPA) to perform very repetitive tasks. Then you can have the same person managing the robot and use the remaining time for more value added tasks.
9. Ensure everyone is clear about the expected output
Regardless of how obvious something may appear to us, we should not assume that everyone from their very personal perspective gets it in the same way. A good way to ensure people are clear is to look at the process from their eyes.
To do just that, you can use the plethora of change management frameworks out there. In the end, the rule of the game is to make sure people win more than they lose by adopting a process.
10. Review your system log with Process Mining
Leveraging your system log can be a gold mine of information; this is particularly relevant for operational processes that are performed in systems such as ERPs. A process mining tool will easily give you a visual output showing you how people operate and you can identify any defect or deviation to standard, or find rationale to update your standards, and many more jewels. Unfortunately, for managerial processes there are rarely logs available to be used.
11. Ensure the process is supported by a smart process orchestration tool
Once you've defined your process, its steps, its frequency, its RACI matrix… nothing is preventing a smart tool from laying out automatically all the activities and meeting that need doing, bringing all the information together in one place as well as taking care of the administrative burden of managing the meeting invites.
Managers can often spend 10% or more of their time just managing and rescheduling invites. The system can become the “chaser in chief” instead of you (probably another 10% or more of many managers working cross functionally). It can also automatically reallocated tasks when one team member is on holiday. And even more powerful, if a step of your process needs to be done for each product category and your business launches many new ones every year, why wouldn’t you want to have something dynamically included in these new categories as they appear? Without having to remember it with post it notes all over your desktop!
12. What if you simply stop doing a process, who would shout at you?
It can be a good way to know what can be stopped… Of course, maybe give a heads up to a few people in the organization so it is not seen as an inadequate behavior!
Other related reads
You don’t need to be convinced yet to get started.
You don't need already well defined processes.
Enjoy a free setup and onboarding.