Given we have spent the last couple of posts exploring how to document activity steps and how to elicit them, it is fitting that we now explore how they are improved. But boy oh boy is this a big topic! Forget books – series of books have been written on this topic, and here am I trying to condense it into one little post. Let’s just recognize that I am only going to be touching the tip of the technique iceberg and hopefully we can all be happy with that!
As usual I will give you my considered opinion on the ways in which procedures / activity steps / the way in which we do things can be improved and you can take them, add a pinch of salt or keep a different opinion all together!
So how can procedures be improved? Let’s take a step backwards first. What are the purposes of procedure improvement? I would argue that there are three. Firstly, to make things happen more efficiently (take fewer or quicker steps, or improve the transition between them). Secondly, to make things happen more cost-effectively (use less resources and less expense generally). Thirdly, to make things happen more appropriately (greater contribution to the goals they are supposed to be contributing, inline with the specified principles and within the correct constraints). That’s a fairly big ask!
Therefore those must be the aims of any process improvement (darn-it, I have reverted back to that word ‘process’!) exercise, assessing an existing procedure, identifying any issues and identifying any improvements in terms of:
- unnecessary steps,
- time it takes to complete a step,
- transition time between steps,
- contribution to goals,
- adherence to principles of behaviour, and
- compliance with constraints.
It’s probably appropriate to talk at a conceptual level about how process improvement is staged. It sounds pretty simple – and the below diagram hopefully helps too. First you clarify the ‘As Is’ – this is the current state and the way in which the business activities are already happening. Then, using whatever techniques you determine to be appropriate, you determine how you want the business activities to be carried out in the future – this future state is called the ‘To Be’. Thirdly, finally, you determine the way in which the business will cross the gap between the ‘As Is’ and ‘To Be’ and transition to the improved way of doing things. Development of new activities can follow the same sort of thinking, without the ‘As Is’ and using a framework for connecting goals to business activities can help in identifying where these new activities are required.
So, with that context in mind, I had planned to spend the rest of this post quickly running through the different aims of process improvement and working out some appropriate techniques for addressing them. However I quickly ran into my first problem with this approach when I realised that the most important technique for process improvement is generic and the precursor to all of them. Here it is – document your procedures! Yep it is that simple. By documenting the steps you go through to undertake a business activity you will find you immediately start identifying ways to improve… You just can’t help yourself!
My next step was to research some techniques for process improvement through the different lenses and aims that we talked through previously, but the second problem quickly struck. You see the aims we discussed earlier can be boiled down to the following questions.
- How do we remove unnecessary steps?
- How do we reduce the time it takes to complete a step?
- How do we reduce the time it takes to complete a series of steps?
- How do we reduce costs?
- How do we reduce resource use?
- How do we improve the contribution of activities to goals?
- How do we align activities with behavioural principles?
- How do we comply with constraints?
And in reality there are very few specific techniques that can help address these questions. It all really boils down to logic, analysis and thinking things through. No quick fixes here I’m afraid! In many cases, the focus is on applying logic to the problem in the context of a broader management framework, rather than a specialized toolset. I find that rather refreshing, but maybe it’s not that simple!
If you want to cut down unnecessary procedure steps, you (stakeholders, activity owners, whoever is appropriate in the context of your process improvement project) need to take a holistic look at a flow chart of intersecting flow charts, and think which -if any – of these is superfluous.
To reduce the use of time, costs and resources there are more specific tools available. However the focus is on developing an evidence-based understanding of what time, costs and resources are involved in the current state and why, identify what they should really be to guide any improvements, and estimate what they would be in any future proposed state.
To improve the contribution of activities to goals, involves an accurate tracing of goals through what activities could and do contribute to them and tightening up this alignment. This sounds vague, but seriously, this seems more a matter of analysis, brainstorming and a bit of intuition, rather than any scientific methodology. Similarly, to align activities with agreed principles of behaviour and keep them within defined constraints (be that legal, financial or geographic) is more a matter of having a checklist of principles or constraints that one must turn one’s mind to in the review or development of a process, rather than a specific method of inserting these principles mechanically into a business process.
So yes, it seems like it all boils down to logical thinking and methodical analysis. In fact, I would say there is an argument that what is hardest about process improvement is not identifying the improvements, it is being sure that there are no negative implications and then actually making the behavioral and infrastructure changes required to make the change not just happen, but stick. Then, add in a continuous improvement or adaptive management philosophy and you’ll be doing this cycle over and over again!
What do you think?
Is it really this simple? Are there any specific techniques that you think should be identified?