Process Improvement: How to start and the role of the 3-P's

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So you have been through countless meetings and discussions with your peers, managers, executives, and anyone who would be a tad interested in Business Process Management, and how a BPM platform would not only streamline line-of business processes but also improve the overall efficiency of the organization. You tried every possible way to convince people in your organization that “process” is not just about drawing rectangular blocks on a blackboard, or post-it notes on large paper boards, but about the methodology that encapsulates process improvement and the larger gain that such a methodology could provide to the organization in the long run. You discussed how process improvement and management could provide better ROI, increase efficiency and visibility, and improve collaboration; how a BPM system, model-driven framework and Service Oriented Architecture would increase the rate of deployment of business critical processes. And you received those blank stares, subtle smirks, or outright rejection from people who could not understand the need for “another” methodology.

Finally, just when you think that you have no more energy left to fight the “process battle”, your manager gives you a shot to prove your point.  Even before you feel relieved that your voice has been heard, you have your task cut out. Questions linger, for which you have to find solutions quickly. There is no time to “stand and stare”. Where do you start? How do you select the “right” process? How do you get a quick win out of your process implementation (improvement) project? How do you convey the right message to the stakeholders? 

The answer lies in the 3 P’s for continuous process improvement: Process Discovery, Process Optimization and Process Implementation. The 3-P’s are like three pillars that form the base of your process improvement effort. Just like a house, the process will fail without a strong foundation. The process improvement effort is similar to building a house because you always start with the base first and ensure that the foundation is strong enough to support the overlying structure. While defining the foundation for the improvement effort, the following should be thought about:

  1. Which business critical processes could be positively impacted by a well-defined and streamlined process (current processes or processes that are not defined yet)
  2. What value-add will the improved process convey to the stakeholders (increased customer satisfaction, decreased costs etc.)
  3. What will be required to implement the improvement (in terms of people, systems, software, effort etc.

Once you have a solid understanding of the above requirements, the next step is to devise a roadmap for the improvement effort, by following the below mentioned steps:

Process Discovery ( the first P):

Selecting the right “first” process can be quite a daunting task. The key is to find a balance between departmental and cross-functional processes. While initiating process efficiency and improvement efforts, always “Think Big, Start Small and Scale Fast”. Always keep the big picture in mind. Think about processes that have a high impact on your line of business; processes that are directly connected to your organization’s revenue streams or those that directly or indirectly impact your customers; processes that when improved will garner the interest of managers and executives alike. Some examples would be:

  • Contracts Management ,
  • IT Asset Management,
  • Invoice Approval,
  • Order to Cash,
  • Incident Management (part of Case Management),
  • IT Help Desk,
  • Change Management etc.

Once you zero in on your process, think of the value that you would want to showcase. For example, if you choose to improve the Incident Management process, you may want to think in terms of faster resolution rates, increased transparency, and real time updates on customer issues. Also, while deciding on which process to improve (as your first process), try to pick one that caters to a single department or maybe two. Do-not try to pick the most difficult process as the first one to improve. Doing so may jeopardize the opportunity at hand. For example, if you pick the “New Hire Onboarding” process, keep the integration with external systems (payroll systems, benefits systems etc.) for the second iteration; focus on how immediate changes or smaller improvements can reap huge benefits. For example, sending reminder notifications to the HR manager regarding the start date of a new hire to ensure that all last minute actions are taken care prior to the new hire joining could be considered a significant improvement.

Process Optimization ( the second P):

Once the process to be improved is discovered, the next step is to think about optimizing the process. Very often we fall into a labyrinth of “lean, value-add, non-value add” steps and spend too much time over-analyzing ways to improve the process. Since the process you have chosen will have to go through a few iterations before really becoming “lean”, try to keep it simple in the first phase. Yes, you heard it. Be prepared for iterations or continuous process improvement. But the key here is to think of the big picture. Have a roadmap for your process improvement initiative. Divide the effort into phases and set the expectations at the outset. The following are the important steps to consider during the optimization phase:

  1. Establish Goals: Goals must be tied in with business needs.  Since whatever improvement effort you undertake has a business sponsor, try to adhere to the business goals. Remember, unless you show numbers, the sponsors will not be happy.  Therefore, clearly stating the goal is extremely important. For example in the Incident Management process you may set the goal as follows:

    Increase Incident Management process efficiency

    1. by decreasing the average cycle time for case resolutions per Business Unit and per agent by 40 % ,and
    2. by increasing the SLA (service level agreement) achievement time for critical cases by 50%

    By stating the goal explicitly, you can measure the success rate of the process   improvement effort post implementation.

  2. Define Scope: Since you will act as the “Middle Man” for stakeholders and the knowledge worker, you must always keep a strong leash on the scope. Expectation setting is the key. Do-not aspire to get everything done in the first iteration itself.  Keep the project in-scope and plan for iterative releases and with every release try to further optimize the process. By doing so you can achieve incremental gains.

  3. Decide on a Steering Committee: The steering committee always plays an important role in advancing the process improvement initiative. The committee should consist of a representative from each Business Unit. Remember the key here is to get the commitment of everyone. At the end of the day the broader goal is to get the acceptance of each department toward this methodology.  To start with, you may consider only those Business Units that may be impacted by the process. Gradually you could encompass more Business Units as the process improvement methodology becomes an accepted standard in the organization. The role of the steering committee will be to decide and rank each processes earmarked for improvement. Ranking should be for “process difficulty” and “process priority”. The steering committee will also provide useful insights and help in conflict resolution during the course of process improvement activities.

  4. Define Measures:  Measures are an integral part of process improvement. To prove that the process improvement effort has reaped the benefits you set forth, measures must be defined and calculated. Some examples of measures for the Incident  Management  process are:

    1. Comparison between the current cycle time and the cycle time after process improvement to resolve an incident
    2. Comparison between the current wait time for an incident in a Business Unit and the wait time of an incident in a Business Unit after process improvement
    3. Comparison between the current SLA(service level agreement) times for “Critical” cases and the SLA for “Critical” cases after process improvement

If you do-not have enough time to get members of different Business Units to be part of the Steering Committee, just stick with the current sponsor. You can include more members as you make progress with the process. What you must realize is that when you hit a roadblock, take an alternate route (in this case postponing the creation of a steering committee to a later date).Remember you do-not have to get everything right the first time. Learn to improvise.  While defining measures, do-not be extremely aggressive by stating that the process will decrease the cycle time by more than 90% during the first iteration. Be cautious not to go overboard or overstate what the goal might be. The primary outcome of the process improvement effort should be to showcase how a well-defined, process-centric methodology coupled with process measures can improve business critical processes.

Process Optimization ( the third P):

Once the process discovery and process optimization steps are taken care of, the next step is the actual implementation of the process. The question here is how quickly can you implement the optimized “To-Be” process? Are you going to build the process using the traditional “Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC)”, or are you going to do rapid development using BPM systems. The answer to this question may vary depending on various internal factors, such as the development practice at your organization, time to implement and resource availability. If your organization already has a BPM suite but has no idea how to use it, you just hit the jackpot.  Traditional ways of implementing processes can be time consuming and resource heavy because most of the process implementation onus is on the development team. Also, the process owners see the final product only at the “testing” stage and usually find discrepancies between the initial vision and developed process. Changing functionality due to change in requirements might lead to further delays in releasing the improved business critical process and this may hamper the initial momentum that you may have gained for the improvement effort. BPM systems create a level playing field wherein the process owners can rapidly model the improved process flow, implement changes by leveraging the robust model-driven framework and be actively involved in every step of the implementation. 

  1. BPM SystemsThe main advantage of using a BPM system is that it allows for faster process implementation time, provides run time visibility of processes, adapts very easily to changing processes and communicates seamlessly with external systems. BPM technology reports on process data which is very useful, tracks historical data, which can be used to calculate the efficiency rates, and provides information regarding key performance indicators. Most of the modern day BPM systems come equipped with the model-driven framework and are built on the principles of service oriented architecture, which allows for service reusability within processes. In addition, BPM systems are built keeping the business user in mind. Most BPM systems allow business users to easily model the business logic and rapidly make changes to the process flow based on changing requirements. The development team can now focus more on creating re-usable IT assets or services, thus creating a process service repository. BPM platforms enable business and IT to collaborate effectively by marking a strong distinction between the business and IT responsibilities during process implementation.

CONCLUSION:

If you keep the 3-P’s in mind during your process improvement efforts, you will definitely see incremental gains, which will lead to huge future gains and steer your organization toward a more well refined process-centric mindset. The key to a successful process improvement endeavor is not how many processes you implemented but how many that you implemented made a difference in enhancing business critical processes and in setting your organization on the process super-highway.

Bio-- Naveen Adibhatla is a business process management enthusiast and evangelist. He currently oversees business process management at RingCentral Inc. He may be contacted at nav.adi@gmail.com

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