Every business manager or owner has the same overall goal: run your business as smoothly as possible with as few errors, delays, and issues as possible. Achieving this target isn’t so easy, even if you have years of experience running a business. Every aspect of a process can create potential pitfalls and problems, and often, the most problematic processes slip by unnoticed due to pure and simple inertia.
The risks of poor process and workplace efficiency are extremely high. Even a single process or task that’s excessively expensive, overly complicated, confusing, or prone to delays can create havoc.
Dummies.com claims that poorly streamlined processes that lead to inefficiency may “cost organizations between 20 and 30 percent of their revenue every single year.” Add to that wasted time, squandered human resources, and a generalized reduction in quality and you have a serious, business-impacting problem.
As the website writes, a highly efficient, well-streamlined business is one that encourages higher productivity, improved quality, better morale, and most importantly, better overall results. That’s a compelling reason to improve and streamline workflow processes…but how do you get from point A to point B with your sanity and business intact?
With this step-by-step guide, you’ll map out and identify your process model, analyze it for problems, identify opportunities, fix the issues, and then learn to adapt and refine your processes long-term.
You can’t fix a problem until you know you have one in the first place, and that means mapping out your current business processes in full. Begin by identifying your critical processes and work your way all the way down to the most basic daily tasks.
Break each process down into individualized steps, and then answer the following questions for each step:
- What: What does the step entail?
- Who: Who handles this step?
- When: What timeframe and/or turnaround is expected?
- Why: Why is this step necessary? Does it impact other steps?
- How: How are you currently completing this step?
Then, turn around and take the same approach to the overall process. You’ll eliminate missed problems, bottlenecks, and issues you didn’t spot the first time around.
As old-school as it may seem, flowcharts make quick work of process maps and can give you a top-down, birds-eye view of each process. Spreadsheets also work, but both of these solutions can become cumbersome if you have a large volume of procedures to analyze.
A better solution is to use business automation software instead. The best platforms contain specific tools to map out processes, analyze data, and create visual representations of the data. When it’s easier to see the root of the problem, it’s also easier to make more effective decisions
Next, it’s time to put on your detective hat. Business process analysis can undoubtedly be complex, but it’s important because it helps you to identify how and why each process is uniquely valuable. If you’re planning on “cutting the fat” and streamlining, that’s the only way to identify what it is you should cut.
To begin your analysis, review your flowcharts and/or business automation software. Working process-by-process, dig through the steps and investigate:
- Desired outcome
- Process flow (refer to your flow chart)
- Exceptions and/or variations in processes
- Regulations and rules (including impactful laws)
- Importance (rank from 1-10)
Process scope is perhaps the most important of all; it’s what reveals exactly when a process or task is draining too much time, energy, or money from your business. Include the volume or impact the process has on day-to-day business.
To drill down and identify scope, ask these questions:
- How often must the process occur to succeed?
- What is the primary goal for this process?
- How does the process start?
- How does the process end?
- Who works on this process?
- Do rules impact the process?
- How does the process flow, step-to-step?
- How much expenditure does the process demand?
Next, include as much information as you can about the desired outcome, step-by-step flow, exceptions or variations (e.g. this step doesn’t occur on Wednesdays), any task-impacting regulations or laws (e.g. this task is required by statute), and exactly how important the job is to your overall business.
At this point, you’ve created an effective process model and should have the analysis you need to make a change. Now it’s time to dig in deep and identify where there’s room for improvement (or removal).
Once you have a firm grasp on your process model, go back over your information and identify pain points. You’re looking for anything that could produce delays or an unreliable result, be it about human tasks or machine-handled tasks.
Identify opportunities by asking these questions for each process:
- What is the success-to-failure ratio for the process?
- Does the process currently support a positive return on investment (ROI)?
- What part of the process creates client/staff frustration, if any?
- Are there any bottlenecks? If so, at which step?
- Is the process expensive? Time-consuming?
- How much risk does this process create?
- If so, what is your most expensive or time-consuming step?
- Are any of the process steps unreliable or confusing?
- What’s the benefit-to-cost ratio (BCR) for this process?
- At what point do decreased costs impact quality?
- Can you automate any of the processes or steps with BMS?
Don’t forget to seek feedback from any involved parties about every step in the process. Ask colleagues and employees to be brutally honest; what frustrates them? What do they like? What do they dislike? How would they improve the process? Encourage employees to engage in the process as much as they can, even if their suggestions don’t seem important to the overall process.
This step works best if you assemble a team of at least a few people to meet, either in person or via video conferencing. Ideally, your team should consist of 75 percent subject matter experts (SMEs) and 25 percent ordinary workers. SMEs are a valuable source of feedback, but their intimate knowledge can sometimes prevent them from seeing potential roadblocks for less knowledgeable clients or employees.
Some businesses also bring in customers for feedback; whether or not this is right for you depends on the process and the nature of your business. Be cautious if you choose this route; a client you expose to the “problems” in your business may misuse the information and do you more harm than good.
Use the “five whys” to identify further issues or bottlenecks. For every issue you find, ask “why.” When you receive an answer, ask “why” again — and then keep drilling down until you’ve asked the question at least five times.
Look at your identified opportunities and decide what it is you can implement with change. Make a list of your proposed changes and then move on to assessing your needs.
Assess Resource Needs
You’ve identified your processes, how they work, and most importantly, how they don’t work. Take your list of proposed changes and assess them for resource needs. Make a list of all resources demanded by the upcoming changes.
Exactly what each business needs will differ substantially industry-to-industry and process-to-process. For your business, it might include hiring more staff, accessing better computers, upgraded machinery, or additional knowledge, or even seeking out new software solutions like business automation software to alleviate workforce understaffing and bottlenecks.
Some streamlining attempts are less a matter of missing resources and more a matter of changing up staff or steps; if so, your needs will remain small. Either way, keep in mind that even the human resources you spend on reconfiguration demand time, human intervention, and efficiency — factor that in.
Former POTUS Bill Clinton once said, ”The price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.”
Martial arts expert Bruce Lee said, “All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”
Many people claim Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” He didn’t; the quote actually comes from a Louisiana State University business professor’s lecture, but the logic is sound and the professor wise.
All three of these esteemed individuals had an intimate understanding of a concept that’s essential to business: the need for change. At this point, all that’s left for you to do is roll up your sleeves and begin implementing the procedural changes you identified in a previous step.
Even though it seems illogical, start with changes that impact your business the least, like process automation.
Can you use an autoresponder for customer service emails? Do it. Will improved human resource management and workforce dispersal immediately improve a process? Make it happen. Can you get rid of a step entirely because it’s no longer necessary? Send it to the trash bin.
Will implementing BMS or business process management software (BPS) for future changes ameliorate issues? Schedule the installation and training sessions to make it happen.
Unless you’re completely reconfiguring a process from top-to-bottom, begin with your process substeps and fix the process piece-by-piece in an ascending trajectory.
There are two exact exceptions to this rule. The first is processes for which changing a single step would immediately halt or disrupt the entire process. The second is any time changing a process substep would severely impact other aspects of your business. In these instances, it’s best to work from the top down.
Monitor for Adaptation
After implementing changes, create a task force to monitor the changes and identify further opportunities for adaptation. Most businesses will need to adapt changes here and there to improve streamlining. Businesses change, the business you do on a daily basis will change, and even the technology you use will evolve along the way. If you can evolve continuously along beside it, you stand a much better chance of surviving today’s increased business competition.
BMS or BPS platform and automation utilization is especially handy for adaptation. With easy access to a click-and-drag process management interface, all you need to do is juggle the steps and resources until you find the perfect fit. It’s a bit like solving a puzzle; sometimes the steps seem to fit, but if the edges don’t quite line up, you need to try another piece until you find the perfect match. It’s much better to adapt and evolve the process for a better fit than to toss out the entire puzzle.