Process Improvement: The final frontier

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One of the biggest areas of interest I hear about from clients is their interest in improving processes to boost efficiency and save money. In the past, many of my clients used a combination of technology system upgrades, or personnel cuts/reorganization to realize real hard savings. Optimizing business processes was not at the top of the list. However, many companies have not upgraded core IT applications since the mid 2000s and they’ve already delivered as much efficiency as possible. In addition, most companies have cut personnel totals to the bone through off shoring or downsizing. Since companies are still in a cash saving mode ($1.86 Trillion in cash currently hoarded by US corporations according to a late July Bloomberg BW article), processes are really the final option to squeeze out savings.
I previously posted a blog about Lost Processes where I introduced a subset of processes that get ignored in the hectic running of business.  More disaster recovery or business continuity type processes. But in this blog, I’m thinking more about the most visible of processes, such as payroll processes that occur with SAP/Peoplesoft or billing processes related to a customer information system that call center agents employ. These are the sexier set. Let’s call them the “The ones that business analysts and consultants alike spend hours coming up with, tweaking and implementing as part of technology projects.” This set of core processes is really what drives most businesses on a daily basis. And for the most part, the ones that executives are reviewing and pushing for improvements. 
So what are the basic steps in process improvement project, you might ask?  
Put simply, the first step is often identifying what the process currently looks like. When I ask the question “Do you have any documentation for process ABC?”, I’m often pointed in the direction of a SharePoint site or a person like Johnnie Cornersitter who serves as the librarian of such processes. Again, these documented processes are supposed to be at the core of the business and used by stakeholders, technology resources, and even outsiders (auditors, consultants) to evaluate the current environment under which the business functions. But with the aforementioned response, I know instantly that the best source of process information will actually come from the people who do the work on a daily basis. 
After reviewing and analyzing such documentation (if available), I often look to validate what I perceive as possible issues with the actual doers via interviews or workshops. Again, I’m trying to understand to the best of my ability the actual process, not what a consultant created in Visio for a technology project and left on the shelf years back.  The actual mechanics of the process, warts and all. Besides, actively engaging and working with such process owners lends credibility to the work you’re doing and provides insight into the pains they feel in the current state. It’s worth it to spend the time soliciting such feedback and building a consensus on those pains (though often a struggle). 
Next, I start to look for recommended fixes. This could be industry best practice, from previous experience, or even from internal suggestions. Often the suggested improvements are identified by those same doers. Employees might have seen best practices at previous employers or through second hand knowledge provided by others at their company. In many cases, those recommendations have never been elevated or defined at a level where executives can take notice. i.e., the cost and efficiency gains have never been quantified in dollar signs. 
Finally, I work with my clients to create a future state that balances the need for efficiency as well as practical for daily use by the people involved. The worst thing I could do would be create a process that is academic in nature and sets the doers up for failure. To be perfectly honest, much of this effort is simply driven by straightforward communication and framing of the tangible benefits provided by recommended enhancements.
None of this is revolutionary work. Many industries (manufacturing, transportation) and companies (3M, Wal-Mart) are fantastic at such this.  They apply frameworks like Six Sigma and ITIL to squeeze out improvements. It’s in their DNA. But many other industries (Healthcare, Media,  Financial, Energy and Advertising) are looking to process improvement projects to provide tangible results in a still uncertain economic time. And for those industries, process improvement is really the final frontier of optimizing their economic models. 

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