How to Improve Business Processes [4+ Practical Ideas]

POST on Process Improvement by Amit

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Whatever your business is about, you probably use a lot of different business processes. A process is something a company is built on – it’s the day-to-day repeatable tasks that keep everything running. If you improve business processes, your entire organization will be more efficient and productive.

What’s a Business Process?

A business process is a series of repeatable tasks taken by either an individual or a team to achieve some sort of business goal.

The main keyword here is “repeatable.” The process is something you do repeatedly. One of the most common examples here is new employee onboarding. Whenever you make a new hire, you go through exactly the same steps…

  • Handling the paperwork
  • Readying the workplace
  • Scheduling an orientation
  • etc.

In contrast to processes, you have one-off tasks or projects. They’re something you have to do just once.

For example, you could have a one-off project to adopt Basecamp, a task-management software, company-wide. You’d purchase a subscription for the software, onboard your employees and you’re done. You won’t have to do this ever again.

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On the other hand, if your business is all about installing software for companies, you could have a process for doing just that on a day-to-day basis.

Process vs Procedure

There are 2 types of processes, formal and informal.

The informal process is called just a “process” and it’s something that is implicit. Your employees do it on a day-to-day basis, but it’s not really something you give too much thought. You haven’t documented it, improved it, etc.

The formal process is called a “procedure.” Unlike a regular process, the procedure is documented. Your employees follow a very strict set of rules on how to carry out the process, which ensures that the work they do is as efficient as possible.

Turning your processes into procedures is very useful for your company. While some of your employees might not be happy about the lack of freedom, your organization will benefit in a number of ways…

  • Clear Accountability – Every employee gets a defined role and the exact list of tasks needed to accomplish. Everyone will know who’s in charge of what, making it unlikely for them to make mistakes
  • Increased Productivity – The procedure should be the most efficient way a process is carried out. Hence, your employees will have more free time to work on what matters.

To turn your processes into procedures, you need to document the most effective variation of the process & standardize it company-wide. We’ll explain how to do both in a bit, as well as other ways of improving your company processes.

  Learn more about the differences between processes and procedures with our article.

How to Improve Business Processes [4+ Practical Ideas]

Most business owners tend to have a “don’t fix what’s not broken” mentality. Unless you’ve really spent a lot of time optimizing the processes, though, there might be a lot of simple ways to improve business processes.

One of the easiest ways to start here is…

Idea #1: Process Documentation and Standardization

Simply enforcing one process company-wide might be very helpful for improvement.

More often than not, there are 4-5 different ways employees carry out a process. If you find which approach is the best, you can simply document it and ensure that all of your employees stick to it.

While there are different ways to document a process, the most straightforward approach is to visualize it and turn it into a process map.

A process map is a simple flowchart that accounts for the steps you need to take to complete the process. For example, if the process in question is employee onboarding, your process map would look like this…

BPMN 2 employee onboarding workflow example

As a given, before you document the process, you need to first know which approach to carrying out the process is the best. So, you’d want to interview all the employees that are involved in the process and figure out what steps they follow.

Then, you measure each of those processes. The one that is the most efficient in terms of time, output, etc. should be the one you standardize.

Once you’ve identified the best process, you need to document it. As we’ve already mentioned, you’d do this by using a process flowchart. There are 3 simple ways to do that…

  • Pen & Paper – The simplest approach is to just grab a pen, a piece of paper, and draw the flowchart.
  • Chart Software – Software specifically made for the purpose of creating process maps. The added benefit here is that the document will be digital, so you can easily share it with your employees.

Once you’ve got the process document, all you have to do is share it with your employees and ensure that they follow the standardized model. To make sure this sticks, you can reward the employees that actually stick to the new rule, rather than continuing with work as before.

Or, to help with enforcing the new process, you can use a workflow application instead.

Workflow Application

Workflow applications help you digitize, track and manage your processes.

The gist of it is, you create a digital version of the process online (or pick a template) and assign different employees to different tasks or steps.

tallyfy screenshot workflow tasks

Then, the software keeps track of the process and helps you manage it. Specifically, it helps with…

  • Process Tracking – By digitizing your processes, you can track them start to finish through the platform. Everyone can see who’s responsible for what, what are the deadlines, whether there are any bottlenecks, etc.
  • Analytics – Keep track of your key metrics for each process. Instead of having to manually measure the efficiency of a given process, you can just use a workflow application to do it for you.
  Not sure which application to pick? Check out our guide to picking the best workflow management system for your business.

Idea #2: Streamlining the Process

If you think that a given process is not performing as well as it could, you can try streamlining it.

By definition, streamlining a business process means improving its efficiency by taking out useless steps, adding in new better steps, optimizing certain steps, etc.

To streamline your processes, you’d start off by creating a process map (as we’ve already covered).

Once you have the map, you have a much better understanding of the process, allowing you to make accurate predictions on what you could improve.

While a map is very useful on its own, though, it works best when combined with other process analysis methods.

There are 2 types of analysis you might need to do – one for problem-solving (if you’re trying to fix something that broke) and the other for optimization (if you want to make a working process better).

Here’s how each of those works…

Problem-Solving

These tools are meant to help you find what went wrong with a given process and how to fix it.

One of our favorites is the 5 Whys. The way the methodology works is, you keep asking “why” until you figure out what’s the root cause of the problem.

So, for example…

  1. Why did the company lose Client X?
    • Because the product wasn’t up to their expectations
  2. Why?
    • Because the product wasn’t manufactured based on client’s specifications
  3. Why?
    • Because the manufacturing director misinterpreted the client brief
  4. Why?
    • Because there were several points within the project specifications document which were not explained well enough
  5. Why?
    • Because the sales team lacks the technical background needed to convey information the right way

At this point, you already have several potential solutions to the problem.

You could, for example, create a new communication channel between the two departments to sort out any misunderstandings.

Or, you could add a team member from manufacturing to the sales department so that they’re more specific with the documentation.

Other than the 5 Whys, there are a lot of other analysis tools out there. You could, for example, use the Fishbone Diagram, a tool that helps you determine the relationships between causes and effects.

fishbone diagram

Optimization

In some cases, you have opportunities to improve processes even if they’re working fine as-is.

Business Process Optimization is a bit harder than problem-solving, though, since there isn’t a one-size fit all formula. Every process is different, so potential improvements can really vary.

You could, however, ask yourself the following questions to get a sense of direction…

  • Are some of the steps in the process costing more than they should? Taking more time than they should?
  • Are there a lot of missed deadlines and bottlenecks within the process?
  • Which step within the process is most critical to product output? Is there any way to make it more efficient?

Idea #3: Process Automation

While it’s very rare to be able to automate a process from start to finish, there are usually a lot of opportunities for automating the steps it consists of.

BPA is the automation of a process (or process steps) through technology or software. It should be noted, though, that process automation is not the same thing as industrial automation. The first specifically deals with the automation of a process through software, while the second is physical automation. Think, robots building cars.

Here are a couple of business functions that would benefit from BPA…

Task or To-Do Automation

A lot of the tasks you do on a day-to-day basis can be automated with a tool such as Zapier. The tasks aren’t usually anything too substantial, though. Software can’t really handle most of the work that a human can – you can’t ask the software to do an entire process for you.

What you can do, though, is automate the minor tasks that the process consists of.

For example, let’s say you’re selling some software through a website. For anyone that’s interested in the product, they fill in their email address in one of the opt-in forms.

For every lead you get, you want to transfer it to your Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software so you can reach out to them.

Instead of having to manually fill in the new leads, you can use Zapier to do it for you whenever there’s a new opt-in.

Any sort of process benefits from this type of automation – while the work you’re automating might just be 15 minutes a day, you’ll be saving up a lot of time in the long-run.

  Not sure which task automation tools you can use? Well, there’s are the 3 must-haves.

Document Management

The document management process, if done manually, can be a hassle.

You send out an email to 6+ members of the management team with a document they need to fill in, and then you wait. This usually leads to a lot of follow-up emails, clarifications, and frustration, especially if you’re part of a large organization.

Document Management Software centralizes all of your document flows, making the whole process automated and transparent.

(Online) Customer Support

If you’re using an online customer support tool, there is a lot of room for automating the communication with your client.

Let’s say there are a lot of customers asking about one specific issue with the website. You’re already aware of the issue and are currently working on it. Despite this, you’re getting flooded with tickets and inquiries about the issue – and you have to answer every single one of them so that you don’t risk losing customers.

A lot of customer support tools, however, allow you to completely automate the replies. So if a customer complaint contains a certain keyword, the software automatically sends a reply.

  There are a lot of other types of business automation tools out there. Check out our article to discover software for all types of automation.

Idea #4: Outsourcing

To save both time and resources, you can always outsource any non-critical business processes.

Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) means either the outsourcing of a specific business function (i.e, customer support) or a set of tasks or processes (VA in charge of lead clean-up process).

To learn more about outsourcing complete business functions, you can check out our guide.

On process outsourcing, on the other hand, we’ll get into a bit more detail.

To begin with, the processes (or steps) you outsource shouldn’t be something very critical to your company. While a lot of outsourced workers can be very reliable, it can sometimes still be a gamble.

Usually, the tasks you would want to outsource are anything that’s grunt work. Basically, that’s just about any task that takes too much time but requires no knowledge or expertise. So, for example…

  • Administrative work
  • Gathering lead contacts online
  • Scraping information
  • Scheduling meetings
  • etc.

This type of work is usually done by virtual assistants (VAs). By outsourcing all the menial work, your full-time employees will have time to focus on the work that really matters.

To find the right VA, you can use either…

  • VA Agencies – This is the more expensive, albeit reliable, option. Rather than having to look for the virtual assistant yourself, the agency does it for you. Depending on the skill-set you need, they offer you the right virtual assistant.
  • Outsourcing Job Boards – If you want to look for a VA yourself, there are a lot of options. Websites such as UpWork, Outsourcely, etc. house a lot of different specialists. While this option is cheaper than hiring an agency, you’ll need to put some more effort into finding the right employee.

Have you tried any of the ideas? Did you manage to improve your business processes? Let us know down in the comments!

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