Discover your current processes
I talked in a previous post about undocumented processes and the risk they can represent to the business. In this article we will discuss how you go about discovering what your current processes are and what state they are in. This is an essential part of any process improvement initiative.
In years gone by, notably in the 1980s and 1990s, it was common practice, when starting a business process improvement program, to start with a blank canvas and design new processes, without any reference to the current way of working. We have learned from this and it is no longer acceptable to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’ when improving the way things are done in business. Documented or not, every business will have processes that will have some positive aspects that should be used as a starting point for redesigned and improved processes. It is seldom necessary to start from scratch.
You want to look at what is already in place, pick out what is really good about those processes and discard the parts that do not makes sense, or create unnecessary effort or rework.
What works and what doesn’t?
It may seem ‘old-school’, but one of the best ways to understand current business processes is simply to walk around the organization and ask people what they are doing and why. When you see something that seems inefficient or counterproductive, ask “Why do you do that?”. Often the answer will be “we have always done it that way”. Analyzing the ‘as-is’ processes will normally highlight multiple areas where improvements can be identified.
But you do not want to spend too much time analyzing your current state, after all you are planning to change it. What you want to do is to gather just enough information to determine how things are done now and where the major pain points are.
Doing this is going to give you a good insight into the non-technical barriers you are likely to encounter during your improvement initiative. You are likely to get a clear picture of who your champions are likely to be and who will resist any changes that are made.
Look for hidden improvement opportunities
While your travels around the organization will quickly show you obvious improvement opportunities, you need to be aware of hidden process improvement opportunities. Be on the lookout for things that are being carried out in an ad hoc manner. Where are people using spreadsheets or access databases to help with their workflow? Where is email being used to facilitate process flow? There is likely to be a lot of wasted effort being consumed by reading and responding to emails that are, in reality, part of the standard process flow.
Finding these hidden aspects of current processes is a very important part of your discovery activities. These are prime candidates for improvements from automation or, in some cases, elimination.
Beware of the idealist
One challenge you may face is that, when you talk to people about their processes, they tend to describe to you what the ideal process would be, rather than tell you what they actually do. This is understandable – imagine if someone asks you how to go about booking a hotel online, you will, most likely, give them clear and concise instructions on how to do this. However, chances are that when you do this yourself, you add a lot of, possibly unnecessary, steps before you make your final booking.
This is why it is important to observe as well as interview. You will get a more realistic view of how things are done by sitting and watching someone performing the tasks than you will from asking them what they do.
One other suggestion I would make is not to rely on current documentation as a source of truth. In my experience, the majority of process documentation is incorrect or out of date. It can be useful as a historical artefact, showing where the process was at one point in time, but there is a high probability that it is no longer accurate.