Successful Process Improvement Requires the Right Mindset

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Faculty Member, and Managing Director, Spanyi International

To best take advantage of the power of BPM technology, enterprises first need to achieve a certain aptitude and the right attitude for understanding and improving the firm’s large business processes. BPM is not a trendy technical fix for problems.

It is a discipline and involves seeing business operations from the customer’s point of view, as a large end-to-end process.

Over time there have been various approaches to improving and redesigning business processes. While each method has important nuances, most involve the following steps: First scope or further define the initiative; then analyze current business practices; next, design future business practices, then implement the design, and then manage or control for continuous improvement. In this generic model the key phases or stages of process improvement are: Define, Analyze, Design, and Implement and Manage.
While the discrete activities in each phase are relatively well-understood, the aspects of corporate mindset and behavior that make the difference between firms who excel at process improvement and those who don’t are outlined below.

The Definition Phase

Defining a process improvement project generally involves agreeing on process boundaries, goals/objectives, participants, constraints and schedule. Firms that excel at executing the improvement of large cross-functional business processes understand that the rapid yet thorough definition of the project is a critical success factor.

Achieving clarity and a shared understanding of process boundaries is essential. In most cases this means clearly identifying the inputs, key steps, outputs, key metrics and a first draft estimate of current performance for the process under consideration. A customer-centric view in this activity is vital where the following key questions are asked and answered: Who is the customer; what do they receive; what level of performance is expected; how are we doing now; how well do we wish to do; where does the process start; what are the key steps; where does it end; and what’s in/what’s out of scope for this project? Firms adept at improving large, cross-functional processes realize the importance of having specific goals/objectives that clearly answer the question ‘what do we want to accomplish by when?’

The method for improving business processes involves specific steps starting with defining the initiative and ending with managing for improvement.

A couple of examples of such specific goals/objectives are:

  • Improve the on-time, defect-free performance of an order fulfillment process from 78 percent to 95 percent within 12 months, while reducing process costs by 20 percent.
  • Improve the firm’s ability to introduce product revisions/enhancements by reducing the average cycle time by 30 percent within the next 12 months.

These goals differ from broad general statements such as “improve order fulfillment performance,” or “gain clarity on roles and responsibilities in the product.” General statements do not provide sufficient specific guidance for improvement projects.

Involving the right people at the right level is another key discipline practiced by successful firms. This includes having clear leadership and accountability for the results of the process improvement project. This includes having a project champion or owner and the right mix of representation from key departments touched by the process on both the project team and the management or ‘steering team.’

Establishing clear and reasonable constraints on the project is an additional discipline in the definition phase. This constitutes developing specific statements on any limitations to be imposed on the project. Typical examples include information systems that can’t be touched, organization changes that cannot be recommended, restrictions on access to funding, or specific ROI that must be met. Not only should these constraints be clearly stated, it is important that the constraints do not unreasonably hinder the attainment of project goals.

A further discipline practiced by successful firms in the definition phase of a major process improvement project is the establishment of a clear schedule, including key meeting dates and milestones, that extends through the analysis phase to end of the design phase. While at times it may be impractical to physically schedule meetings beyond a certain point, firms which are adept at process improvement will task the working team with responsibility to implement–not just to design.

They understand the importance of having continuity of team members through design to implementation.

The Analysis Phase

The analysis of a large, complex, cross-functional process generally includes the development of a cross-functional process map that describes the current state (often called the ‘As Is’), further development and analysis of process performance measures, identification of problems, issues or disconnects which adversely impact the performance of the process, assessment of the impact of these issues and their relative priority.

Firms that excel at executing the improvement of large cross-functional business processes understand that the rapid yet thorough analysis of the process is fundamental. This is predicated on the belief that the principal benefits of analyzing the current state are related to the development of shared understanding by the steering team and the design team on how work is done today, establishing a starting point from which implementation of the eventual design will be launched.

Firms adept at process analysis recognize the value of rapidly developing the cross-functional process map. They have found that the development of a draft cross-functional ‘As Is’ map in ‘swim lane’ format enables design teams to do their work more effectively in this phase. Since the draft map needs to be refined by the design team to gain a shared understanding of how the entire process currently works, an 80-percent-correct draft map is normally sufficient.

The development of a draft ‘As Is’ cross-functional process map is best accomplished by conducting a series of interviews with design team members and others familiar with the process. When this approach is followed, design team members often get an idea how the entire process works from end to end for the very first time.

Another practice common to firms who have become adept at analyzing the performance of large cross-functional processes is to develop increased confidence and clarity on the level of current performance and the size of the performance gap. This involves the use of statistical tools to understand the variability in performance in terms of time, quality and cost.

Arguably one of the most important aspects of the analysis phase is the identification and impact assessment of disconnects, issues or problems. Some firms prefer to view these problems from a positive perspective and frame them as ‘opportunities for improvement,’ which is just the opposite side of the same coin.

Consider this example. A typical problem in the order fulfillment process is duplicate data entry. Firms that elect to view problems as disconnects will identify the frequency of duplicate data entry, its resource intensity, and assess the impact accordingly. Firms that elect to view problems as opportunities will also identify the frequency of duplicate data entry, its resource intensity, and represent the impact of eliminating this problem as an opportunity for improvement.

Firms proficient at analyzing the performance of complex, cross-functional processes recognize the importance of the dialogue between the design team and steering team. They will typically take the time to review the cross-functional ‘As Is’ map, current performance measures and the relevant top-priority disconnects (or opportunities for improvement) in order to assure that there is an understanding of the level of current performance. In most cases, the dialogue lends insight into the direction of the design. This dialogue may also lead to the recognition that membership of the design team needs to be realigned. This occurs because the skill sets necessary for designing a new process are not the same as those needed to analyze the performance of a current process, so additions or changes to the design team’s members are sometimes valuable. When this occurs, the more proficient firms understand that it is essential to orient new members via a review of the work to date.

The Design Phase

While there are a number of different approaches to developing a new design for a single, cross-functional process, there are certain aspects of any new design that leaders should look for.

These include the following:

  • A concise, compelling vision for the new design
  • A cross-functional process map of the way in which business should be conducted in the future to achieve goals
  • A clear matrix of performance measures which should be monitored in the future
  • A set of recommendations for change which captures the rationale to achieve stated goals
  • A document which details changes in roles/accountabilities and indicates who needs to do what in the new process
  • A compelling business case
  • A high-level implementation plan which indicates who will need to do what by when to install new business practices, process changes and related technology with approximate milestones

The bulk of the effort should be dedicated to the creative yet thorough design of the new process. This is not limited to purely process or workflow considerations.

The new design needs to encompass needed changes in performance measurement, enabling technology, changes in roles and accountabilities and other factors.

A shared understanding by both the steering team and the design team on how work will be done in the future and the path to get there is essential.

Firms that are adept at designing the improvement of large cross-functional business processes understand the value of a concise, compelling vision supported by a short list of desirable process characteristics that the new process needs to incorporate. The development of a concise vision also assists in calibrating the innovativeness of the design effort to the scope of improvement intended.

Firms adept at process design also recognize that improving the performance of large processes is not just about process. They expect to see a set of integrated recommendations for change which invariably includes the deployment of enabling technology, training, performance measurement, and may include changes to compensation, geographic location, etc. Since the use of information technology is central to most improvement efforts, these firms pay close attention to the role of collaboration among representatives from the firm’s information systems department in analysis, design and implementation.
Continuing dialogue between the steering team and design team on a periodic basis is another important feature of successful process improvement projects.

This dialogue has dual benefits. First, it is an essential mechanism to maintain momentum and engagement. But it also provides a forum to identify potential roadblocks and obstacles to the eventual implementation of the design. Prompt, decisive action by the project champion in addressing such potential roadblocks and obstacles is a critical success factor in this respect.

The close connection of the business case and a high level implementation plan is an equally important element in successful projects. In this setting the insight on the real return on investment needs to be supported by estimates of the resource intensity and timing of the implementation with estimates of who needs to do what by when for success.

The Implementation and Management Phase

The implementation of a cross functional design is much like any large complex project with the same inherent risks and challenges. As a recent article in The Economist magazine reported, there is scant evidence that companies are getting better at implementing large, complex projects. This is particularly true of information systems projects, where The Standish Group estimated that in 2004 only 29 percent of IT projects were on time, on budget, down from 34 percent in 2002.

There are at least seven business practices employed by firms adept in implementing complex, cross-functional process designs. These are known as “The Seven C’s of Implementation.”

Of course, there’s much more to say about what is behind the seven C’s of implementation and management but that’s an article in itself.


Because business process management is closely tied with enterprise information management systems, many companies attempt to implement technical fixes to their pain points. This is not the road to success in BPM. In fact, executives and managers surveyed on what it takes to successfully improve large, cross-functional processes had a surprising level of agreement that it is really not about tools.

It has much more to do with how tools and techniques are deployed within the big picture context of leading and managing the business. Process improvement itself is a discipline, so it’s not surprising that companies that approach it as such fare better.

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