You would expect that in the most advanced and growth-centric organizations that each department would be humming along with carefully-calculated efficiency to the point of meticulous autonomy.
The system is that there is no system. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a process. Apple is a very disciplined company, and we have great processes. But that’s not what it’s about. The process makes you more efficient.Steve Jobs
You could paint a picture of booming Fortune 500’s with refined multistep approval processes and carefully plotted workflows that drive endlessly like an automotive assembly line.
Truthfully, even in the most structured organizations and Fortune 500’s workplace processes are – at best- disorganized and inhibiting growth. At worst, they cause complete bottlenecks that force employees to circumvent the established processes in order to get anything done. In some cases, the fastest growing companies can completely fail due to a failure to adopt more mature processes.
Not only is that costly for the company but it’s a tremendous amount of stress on employees.
Those team members are faced with a daily challenge of carrying out simple processes in slightly different ways, case by case. That kind of chaos is what leads to costly human error, customer churn, and even employee retention issues.
Where Processes Go Wrong
Companies generally don’t start out this way, and nor do the processes they create. Early on, those processes were implemented with a goal of making specific tasks and workflows more efficient.
Unfortunately, over time, businesses change. Rather than taking the time to rework the process to match the course correction employees or leadership will band-aid the issue.
Small, subtle changes are made to a process to adapt it. Workarounds develop where software ages or departments restructure. That approach is often seen as easier than a complete overhaul. In many cases, a process is forgotten and departments piece together some new workaround specific to the individual tasks without giving any real long-term strategic process a second thought.
In those cases, employees are searching for an immediate solution rather than thinking about how this seemingly small shift will impact the big picture of operations. That’s the nature of people – we’re adaptive. We’ll take an inefficient process and modify it enough to ‘make it work’.
The real culprit is our human nature and the concept that “done is better than perfect.” That mentality might work for getting a product launched, but it can cause problems when patching up processes.
This is typically triggered when there’s a shift in personnel; a restructuring of departments as mentioned above or when employee leaves, taking knowledge with them that hasn’t been shared with others. When new employees come on board they need to be trained on all aspects of existing processes but no one is able to provide a complete picture.
It’s a bit like Jurassic Park when they have incomplete DNA and just fill the gaps with what they could find to complete the sequence. What’s created might seem functional but never goes according to plan.
Now take that cobbled process and mix in the frustrations of employees, growing errors, unskilled new workers, and a demand for results from leadership and you have processes which quickly begin to smoke and break down.
In that situation, employees will drop a bottlenecked process before trying to adapt further and deal with increased frustrations.
Principles for Process Improvement – Lean Optimization and Multistep Approval
There is motivation throughout every organization to improve processes and that motivation exists on multiple levels. While it might not be apparent, the employees are typically most interested in finding ways to improve processes because they are in the trenches. They are handling the majority of the workload, correcting errors, and are held accountable when bottlenecks occur. They would rather work efficiently but it’s hard to stay motivated when frustrating processes dominate their day.
Sometimes it’s just easier to turn a blind eye to the problem when they don’t feel like they’ll be listened to.
With opportunity in every organization to improve, and while implementing process improvement or restructuring for things like multi-step approval processes can get fairly involved, the basic approaches typically remain the same.
1. Analyze processes point to point
In many cases, the processes that we think should work well simply don’t. Sometimes it happens over time, other times the process was faulty from the point of deployment. What looked good on paper just didn’t work once it was put to test.
This is often missed when organizations don’t immediately test a new business process or perform routine audits to analyze processes from point to point.
Employees aren’t likely to push back, especially on a new process that took considerable resources and cost to put into place. They’ll simply struggle along to make it work.
Analyzing and tracking processes is the first step to making any improvements.
2. Empower employees involved in every process
The best people to improve processes and bring about change once audits are completed are not the engineers, executives or leadership that oversee the teams or processes. Instead, the employees who are directly involved in carrying out the process should be empowered to bring about appropriate change.
That means leadership should utilize the full skill set of employees and trust them to help identify and eliminate bottlenecks throughout the process. Since processes often involve multiple employees this can be streamlined by introducing autonomy and creating teams that are in charge of quality control for their segment of a process.
If you implement multi-step approval processes, those who make the approvals at each stage should regularly communicate with others working within the processes to investigate any kind of slowdown or change in delivery from point to point.
This will raise red flags and make it easy to identify the segment of the process at the employee level. Those teams can then suggest improvements to leadership and, when necessary, make the changes.
3. Eliminate waste
When an audit is completed and employees are empowered to assist in managing their own multi-step approval processes the areas of waste begin to become apparent. Any steps in your processes that do not directly create value for your customer or improve the bottom line through added efficiency should be considered a waste. That can be a number of things including:
- Wasted time
- Wasted movement
- Wasted inventory
- Customer delays
- Delays in processing
- Delays waiting for approvals
- Delays caused by process batching
- Duplication of work due to common errors
Empower team leaders or employees to cut these inefficiencies out and improve the process before they create massive bottlenecks.
4. Focus on the customer
Not every process is directly related to a specific customer or customer interaction. Still, many of the processes in your organization are related to the customer whether you’re processing orders, delivering a product, manufacturing something, handling cases, etc.
Ultimately, every customer you work with wants value. Customers feel the value is present when the quality of the services they received, or the product, is high compared to the cost they paid. If you want to improve your processes, consider looking to the customer. What is it that they want most? How can you provide it to them better, faster and cheaper than they’re already getting it?
How can you improve operations, leverage autonomy or implement multi-step approval processes in a way that brings the customer more value?
5. Automate processes, reduce steps, or add approvals
We often have a lot of assumptions about how work gets done, and that’s not just referring to leadership. Employees directly involved in the workload don’t usually think about what is involved in their grind from day to day. They don’t think about how they work.
They just work and get the job done.
When you’re working to improve processes either for operational efficiency or to improve customer delight, step outside of the current process and record the steps. Ask employees to detail what they have to do during the process. Compare their response with how you record the actual steps of the process.
If employees aren’t able to easily recall how to work from point to point in a process, then you need to look into refining it. Either automate some processes to reduce the workload on your team, reduce the steps that are required to complete processes, or implement multi-step approvals.
If the current process is sound, but human error is the primary factor for bottlenecks, then adding approvals at various stages can ensure that progress continues at common choke points where errors occur.
6. Make it easy to collaborate
When you need to improve efficiency but processes aren’t always an issue, consider making it easy for collaboration to take place. This can often lead to a more efficient flow from process to process, especially where multiple parties are involved. Effective, interactive collaboration between your teams, partners, suppliers and even your customers is a guaranteed way to boost efficiency and reduce costs. Sometimes it’s just a matter of more effectively using resources you have readily available.
You can often achieve this by streamlining communications. Few things can reduce efficiency between departments, partners and vendors like communication drops and waiting for responses. Communication tools as simple as email, to more robust applications like Slack, can bring in-house and off-site teams together.
For example, the team behind the Mars Curiosity Rover uses Slack to keep thousands of people communicating and more productive. If having the right tools can make a project like Curiosity a success, imagine what they could do in your organization.
Communication is often at the heart of process failures and bottlenecks, but there’s responsibility at multiple levels to ensure that aging processes are monitored and newer implementations – like multi-step approval processes – are tested to ensure they are functioning at every stage. Start with an audit of your processes and use the principles above to start making a positive change in your operations.