Have you improved your work process, tweaking how work is done or fixing broken steps? Most agree process improvement is good. Yet many staff members are too busy fighting fires to think about how to do their work. They get stuck in the rut of doing things as they’ve always been done. The answer to this miserable dilemma? Moving from the small tweaks associated with traditional process improvement to radical process transformation.
A starting point in thinking about process improvement is understanding what the term even means. In a recent online search, I found ten different definitions for ‘process improvement.’ Many people see process improvement as adding, deleting, or modifying work steps to change how work is done.
The problem with this commonly held definition is that the focus is on tweaks to change to work steps rather than improving outcomes. For example, suppose I want to move from balancing between sources with an adding machine to using an Excel spreadsheet. This improvement seems like a positive change. When I pitch this to my boss, I focus on how the process will change. My boss asks how much time the change will take to implement. That use of resources gives her pause, as she knows our big workload. Most likely, she will say we don’t have time to make changes right now. We need to stay the course and take on the next emergency. We can do the improvement later, when things get better.
Since I did not identify the positive impact of my proposed enhancement, my boss didn’t see its value compared to the other big priorities crashing through her door. Too often, defining process improvement as tweaking how work is done causes this important tool to be ignored.
Process improvement can truly produce more favorable outcomes than had been realized before. Without it, employees can become locked in a vicious cycle in which underlying process flaws are not corrected. As in the example below of an improperly prepared check, both customers and staff can become frustrated by processes that don’t work as they should.
If the cycle consists of complaint-pull-fix without also investing time in fixing the issue for all customers, similar problems are likely to occur in the future. That means staff will work longer and longer hours responding to emergencies, getting further and further away from the good work they want to do. Eventually staff may burn out and leave, placing a greater burden on remaining employees to do the work.
I have experienced this vicious cycle in my own life. Early in my career, I accepted a job in an area that claimed to promote great work-life balance. My superiors promised there would be overtime only at year-end. Once I was there, I found that by overtime, they meant seven days a week for six weeks! I barely saw my young children for a month and a half. When I commented about the excessive overtime, the staff said it was always that way, and to just “suck it up” because it would not change. I questioned the culture and the paradigm, and I wondered if things would ever get better. That unpleasant situation has inspired me for the rest of my career.
To correct agonizing situations such as the one I survived, I rename, rephrase, and reposition process improvement in my training by sharing the story of process transformation.
Process transformation is the use of proven process improvement tools to maximize what the organization has now to achieve an improved outcome.
Process transformation solves pain points organizations experience so they can work toward efficient, effective, and high-quality outcomes for their customers. Organizations have achieved the following outcomes from this approach.
There are three important points in this definition of process transformation.
1. Proven tools. A recent survey by change management specialist Prosci indicated that the majority of process improvement projects fail, primarily due to lack of proven tools, experience, and support. The good news is that there are tools and training that offset this risk. The key is to leverage the tools and training that work with your industry and situation. For example, quality management tools require rigorous training on statistical analysis and are great for manufacturing organizations. However, statistical analysis principles have little use in a service organization. A better tool for a philanthropic or charitable organization would be one that helps employees identify wasted steps.
2. Maximize what the organization has now. Employers manage more than work steps or process to achieve the outcomes they need. They leverage business policies, roles and responsibilities, technology, work steps, and other elements to create desired outcomes. Some of these components are helpful and efficient, while others end up undercutting objectives. For example, the policy of a foundation I am coaching might require that grants be paid within two weeks after being approved. If the competition can pay a grant within three days, I ask my client to identify and maximize everything they have now to achieve faster turnaround.
3. Improved outcomes. To ensure that the desired results are achieved, process transformation identifies the needed outcomes before the improvement work begins. To illustrate, a team may decide they need to recapture and reinvest half the time they are now spending to issue grants. This may amount to one hour per grant, for a total of 500 to 1,500 work hours. Once leaders understand the payback from their investment in process transformation, they support the investment. Learn more about this concept in my companion blog post: Achieve Process Improvement Results: Start at the End.
Process transformation requires an investment of both time and resources to be successful. When leaders and staff members learn about tools that will help them work smarter rather than harder, they find that their investment pays off. The graph below shows immediate results achieved when process transformation tools were used in four recent projects:
We have been coaching and training teams in process improvement and transformation for more than two decades. A recent study of our clients indicated that their returns overwhelmingly offset their investment. Typically, we have found that the first year’s results more than cover the costs of the training and staff time investment, with future years’ savings being “gravy.” Imagine sharing with your organization’s leadership or board that your team can take on more without additional staff because the team has recaptured and repositioned 1,000 to 2,000 work hours.
Now back to my story. After being told to “suck it up,” I was determined I would never again work that much overtime. Therefore, I sought and gained leadership approval to conduct a process transformation project. I committed to leadership that I would shorten the year-end work time for everyone. To do so, I partnered with my team using proven improvement/transformation tools to maximize everything we already had. As a result, we cut the steps to complete our year-end reporting in half. In the next year-end cycle, the team worked only one weekend rather than the six weekends we had with the old process.
If your team works overwhelming hours, reacts to constant emergencies, or is not maximizing expensive software, process transformation may be the answer to your problems. With an initial investment, your team can solve its pain points, recapture time, and deliver better and faster outcomes to your customers.
Learn more by leveraging our free website assessment tools to diagnose your pain point, or contact Lee Kuntz to talk about your needs. Organizations have found hundreds—even thousands—of work hours to reinvest in serving their customers. You can, too