Refine Processes the Easy Way

What TQM, CQI, reengineering and other process improvement programs advocate is an increase in efficiency through the systematic study and improvement of critical business processes. But what we have found is that many companies approach these programs incorrectly by:

1) selecting unimportant or lower priority processes to study

2) getting bogged down in the analysis rather than focusing on results.

What is a process? Webster’s Dictionary defines a process as a “method of doing something will all the steps involved”. Businesses are made up of a number of processes, each with varying degrees of complexity in terms of the number of steps involved. These processes are used to carry out functions and activities. For example, something as simple as paying bills or more complex manufacturing or distribution processes are all necessary to keep a business running. How efficient these processes are can have a major impact on customer satisfaction, employee morale and productivity and profitability.

Before proceeding, an organization should inventory all of its important business processes. Once the inventory is completed, the list of processes should be prioritized in terms of their relative importance to the overall success of the company. We believe that the most important processes are generally those that impact customers most directly and most heavily. After the list of processes has been prioritized, begin with the most important process. Select a refinement team of roughly 3 to 7 people. The team should consist of people with and without intimate knowledge of the process. Selecting people without intimate knowledge is important because they can provide a more objective, distant perspective. It is often difficult for those closely involved in a process to “see the forest from the trees”. They are often too close to it to be objective or they have such a vested interest in it that they will fight change.

Once the team is in place, have an initial meeting to provide a brief overview of the process and to collectively list the steps (flow chart) the process in question. Have someone record the steps involved in the proper order. That individual will be responsible for preparing a draft of the flow chart and distributing it to each member of the team within a day or two of the initial meeting. Schedule a second meeting that should take place within about a week or so. In the meantime, the team should be individually looking at each and every step of the process and evaluating whether that step is:

1) appropriate

2) necessary at all.

In the second meeting, the group will begin discussing each step of the process. Each member of the team should provide input as to whether that step is correct and necessary or whether it should be modified (and how) or eliminated completely. The group should reach consensus on each step. Once each of the steps has been evaluated in this manner, a new flow chart should be prepared for the group to review. A final evaluation should take place to ensure that the process will, indeed, do what it is intended and that it has in fact been made more efficient.

With this approach, processes can be quickly and easily enhanced to become more efficient and less cumbersome. While most processes can be refined in this manner, there could be a few processes that are very complex that will require more extensive analysis and measurement. But we believe that over-analyzing simple processes simply ties up people resources and provides little incremental advantage over the method described above.