There are very few businesses that wouldn’t benefit from implementing process improvement strategies in the modern business world.
But during a global pandemic, where reducing costs and managing remote team members becomes even more important, process optimization is crucial.
When Process Bliss launched in 2018, we conducted research with SME leaders and found that 54% of senior managers in SMEs are wasting a day every week just managing process, with a further 34% wasting two days each week.
This is a lot of resource to be spending on something that more than three-quarters of small business leaders admitted that they don’t manage effectively. With bottlenecks, inefficiencies, and a lack of optimization, managing processes can be a challenge. All too often the reasons why process fails boils down to the fundamental attitude towards process from senior management.
We take a different approach. Our five simple strategies have been designed to inspire leaders to take action and own the growth of their business, even in challenging times.
In this article we’ll discuss how process improvement drives growth and delve into five actionable techniques that will help you implement better processes so you’re ready for future challenges.
How process improvement drives growth
Business process improvement and optimization is an often overlooked business growth strategy. Unlike more traditional techniques like diversification or acquisition, process improvement is a simple way for small businesses to provide a better service to their customers, increasing efficiency and profit along the way.
So if process drives a company’s growth, what limits it? The same as limits any project – the holy trinity of time, quality and money. Often referred to as the “Scope triangle” or “Quality triangle”, it describes how the amount of time available, the level of quality and the cost of an initiative trade off against each other. If two of these items are fixed, the third has to fluctuate.
Project management scope triangle
Growing small businesses often struggle to get everything done on time with the people they have, and throwing money at the problem isn’t a solution. Improving existing processes and procedures boosts growth because it has a positive impact on time, quality and cost.
Time. A fully documented procedure that helps employees carry out their work reduces the time needed to carry out the activity. All the information needed to do the job is in one place. Additionally, business process management (BPM) may help companies find areas that can benefit from automation, freeing up employees’ time.
Quality. Having clear steps to follow also means that the process is done the same way every time. Whether you show these through flowcharts, a documented workflow, or another method, it means people don’t need to start from scratch each time.This increases consistency and lessens the risk of errors.
Cost. Reduced errors means less time spent correcting problems and ultimately means increased customer satisfaction. Happier customers are more likely to use your services again.
To scale sustainably, companies need fit for purpose operational systems that can cope with their changing demands, and process is the fundamental layer that supports this. In short, continuous improvement of processes can increase efficiency.
Now we’ve covered how process drives growth, let’s explore our five process improvement strategies.
Strategy #1: Embed process
76% of UK SME leaders say they do not manage process effectively.
Conventional wisdom suggests documenting your current processes in files, but this doesn’t work as they often aren’t used and they quickly become out of date. Procedures that live in people’s heads don’t work either, as it creates inconsistency, errors and risks the knowledge being lost if people leave.
As you may well have found in this new pandemic world, finding out information is so much harder when you can’t just go over to someone’s desk to ask. The solution is to embed process into the day-to-day running of your business. Otherwise, your improvement efforts will be in vain.
Process is rather like marmite – you either love it, or you hate it. There are those who love the order it brings and embrace how it helps them do their job. On the other side there are those who don’t see the value and claim it is too restrictive, especially for creative people. So how can you ensure that process is appreciated and actually used within your organisation?
The answer is to make process useful. It’s not enough to work on process mapping if the end result is hidden away or difficult to understand. Instead, add value to the series of instructions by adding:
- Links to websites or intranet pages
- Guidance on how to carry out each step, plus information explaining what “done” on this step looks like
- Relevant documents, such as template emails or contracts
Embedded in this way, processes deliver real benefits both to the end users and to the wider company by eliminating key person risk. This doesn’t only apply to existing processes – when creating a new process, make sure to begin with a clearly defined list of instructions from the start.
Strategy #2: Process is not there for you
Process has a bad reputation of being restrictive and controlling. However, the root cause of this isn’t process itself – it’s how organizations implement it. In the past, adherence to the defined procedure was key, and process improvements were slow to be implemented, if indeed optimization was ever a focus.
Today’s management methodologies are more flexible, embracing delegation, servant leadership and organizational change led by employee feedback. Subsequently, the modern approach towards process is that it’s not there to help you control your business; it is there to help your staff to get it right.
Implementing process shouldn’t be a way to micromanage and constantly check up on your employees. Now remote working is more widespread than ever before, employees shouldn’t feel under the microscope when following a process. Processes shouldn’t define every single action to be followed to the letter; they should provide the information staff need to support them in their role.
Our CEO Alister Esam learnt this the hard way:
“In 2013, I was running my previous business and I was constantly frustrated. I didn’t know what my staff were doing and so I constantly asked for updates, stuck my nose in and meddled in the details.
I had a demotivated team of 12, I was working 80 hours a week and we couldn’t scale the business.
However, fast forward five years…
We had grown to 70 people without raising investment.
We had 20,000 customers in 40 countries.”
Once Alister had successfully embedded process, he no longer needed to meddle. He was reassured that the business was running the way it should so he could step back from the day-to-day operations and focus on further strategies for growth.
While process can benefit upper management and stakeholders, it’s not about them – instead, it’s there to help your teams do their job. That means listening to them if they have suggestions on process improvement techniques, rather than imposing structure from the top down.
Strategy #3: Keep it simple
63% of employees are not clear about company process.
One of the most misunderstood process improvement strategies is to keep process as simple as possible. There are so many technical terms out there – TQM, DMAIC, and DMADV, to name but a few. But knowing the jargon is less important than knowing what works.
Of course, as we explained in point #1, the procedure still needs to be detailed enough to provide value. But overcomplicating it with unnecessary rules makes it difficult to follow, and less likely to be used.
Key to process improvement methodologies is the concept that you should look to eliminate, amalgamate or to delegate activities where possible. This can be through process automation, or simply through team restructuring.
If a process is complex it is harder to understand what went wrong and how to fix it. A procedure that is clear to visualise and follow through from start to finish will be more useful to your business than one that no-one can get their head around. Continuous process improvement is important here too – your procedures need to be up-to-date, otherwise they’ll only create more confusion.
Trying to account for every single scenario is virtually impossible. Besides, you’ve hired smart people – let them use their knowledge and experience to achieve the best result. Which leads nicely on to our fourth point…
Strategy #4: People are smarter than process
40% believe their boss interfering in their role adversely affects company productivity.
Processes are the lifeblood of your business. As such, they should evolve with you, so that your business is continually supported in delivering its services. One technique to improve your business processes is to allow flexibility around things that couldn’t be done.
As we’ve previously said, process isn’t there to control your staff. In fact, it’s the opposite. Your people are smarter than process, and they should be able to suggest changes themselves if it’s not allowing them to do their jobs. Incorporate them into your process modeling, and you’ll quickly find they have some great improvement projects in mind. If you’re using a particular methodology (like Kaizen, or Six Sigma), make sure they get appropriate training.
Let’s look at a practical example. If you’re onboarding a client or hiring a new employee, always requiring that steps have to be completed before the next one can be done can create unnecessary blockers that delay the end result. There are some scenarios where something absolutely has to be done after something else, and that’s fine, but generally steps in processes can be done concurrently.
Process Bliss is unique in that it allows employees to skip steps and record the reason why. This gives you the ability to see what is working and what isn’t – and where you can improve. You might even find redundancies in your process, and you can remove them to save time.
When you and your team are no longer working in the same office, this visibility is paramount. When reviewing process for improvements, it is important to understand what is working and what isn’t. A “sea of green” doesn’t give you the full picture.
Strategy #5: Doers need to own the process
In most companies leadership has a responsibility to deliver results. However, managers may not be equipped with the exact details that they need to achieve them. To manage from above on operational matters in which you aren’t involved, risks micromanagement and meddling (see point #2).
Let’s consider a practical example. A manufacturing firm might notice that they’re producing 10% more product that they need. To counteract this overproduction, they swap to a more lean manufacturing process without consulting the team. Later, they get increased complaints from customers about low-quality products. If they had spoken to the relevant team, they might have learned that this 10% extra was to account for errors or broken product – and prevented the negative result.
Delegating ownership of process to those who do the work, with appropriate controls where needed, will enable your business to adapt more quickly. Furthermore, allowing the doers to suggest and implement process changes will result in higher value processes for your employees. If they are of a higher value, they are more likely to be used consistently, which is the foundation for an efficient business.
Enabling those using a process to feedback on it, at any stage, captures important insights at the very moment they happen. Don’t wait for annual process review meetings to request feedback from your staff and think about what could be made better. Timely process improvement feedback is vital in making those reactive improvements that add up to huge gains in your operational efficiency. In turn, this will help your business cope with whatever is thrown at it, and to grow faster.
“To maximise efficiency the power to make decisions should be given to the people performing the process”.
Michael Hammer & James Champy 1989
Process improvement is an underrated growth strategy for your business, but one that can have quick, tangible benefits. With our 5 process improvement strategies you will be setting up both your processes and your wider business on the path to sustainable business growth, global pandemic or not.
Process Bliss is a system that helps you to deliver a consistent service, empower your employees and free management to focus on results.