The work week should be over, but the office is buzzing, and the chief financial officer is making the rounds one more time. Foundation policy says grantee checks must be in the mail by end of day Friday, and there are still dozens of outstanding items. Everyone is staying late, because if those checks don’t get out, grantees can’t act on their programs. People can’t get help. And the foundation board is sure to hear about it.
If that scene sounds uncomfortably familiar, you’re not alone. Learn more: Invest for Impact: Continuous Process Improvement
Have you been part of a process improvement project that required an investment of hours upon hours over months or even years? Was a process improvement effort stopped because the team could not agree upon which improvement ideas to implement? Or an improvement initiative that made things worse instead of better?
With results like these, no wonder leaders hesitate to authorize process improvement initiatives. Yet some leaders are achieving impressive results from redesigning processes. They cut the work time to serve their customers in half, recapturing and repurposing thousands of hours. At the same time, they deliver better outcomes to their communities, boards, and partners.
These diametrically opposed outcomes beg the question: What creates the big difference in results?
The difference in results stems, in part, from the varying working definitions of process improvement. One website defines process improvement as “a systematic approach that can be used to make incremental and breakthrough improvements in processes.” While this approach sounds promising, it falls short of bringing transformational change.
A process redesign project that focuses only on improving how work is done will not significantly improve outcomes despite taking many hours of staff time. For example, one team shared that they worked on an improvement project for eighteen months. They met for two hours every month and talked about a host of cutting-edge ideas. Yet the team could not come together behind any idea they were willing to try. After they had invested more than 400 work hours generating ideas without implementing any of them, people started dropping out of the project. Then the CEO identified a new initiative and the team switched its focus to that priority.
I view process improvement more holistically. I see it as a tool to improve outcomes in a broader sense. It can be leveraged to enhance quality, customer experience, accuracy, compliance, or any other key process outcome. When leaders start by identifying the specific outcome(s) that must be improved, they make it possible to achieve impactful process improvement results.
Recently, a chief operations/administration officer (COO) became aware that her organization was incurring significant late-payment penalties. Phone calls about the late payments from both internal managers and external partners were eating up her team’s time, and the organization’s financial resources were being squandered on paying the penalties.
The COO talked with her team about what she saw and then initiated a process redesign project with the specific goal of getting payments out on time. She leveraged my team’s process improvement training and mentoring to help the team better understand what was actually happening. Once her team saw that they could solve the pain they were experiencing, they eagerly stepped forward to be on the redesign team. This team used their new process improvement knowledge to reduce the payment process from 110 steps to 60 steps. Now they are implementing these new ideas and have shortened the time to get payments out. They will no longer be plagued with collection phone calls and can reinvest their time in helping the organization fulfill its key objectives.
Achieving process improvement results starts with identifying the needed outcome(s) first. After all, would you start a road trip without picking a destination? With no destination, you may end up in Alaska, rather than California. Or on the side of the road, out of provisions for the journey. Only through setting a clear destination can your team succeed in achieving the improvement they need.
As a coach and a trainer, I have opportunities to influence leaders as they seek to achieve process improvement results. Therefore, I first ask which outcomes need to be improved.
When leaders focus on improving specific process outcomes, they foster employee engagement and leadership support. Starting with a particularly painful outcome is a great first step. For example, a director of donor relations received calls from three donors who said they received someone else’s gift acknowledgement letter. After awkward apologies were made and the letters were corrected, the director called me to learn how she could quickly address this situation so it would never happen again. I coached her and the team through a four-hour rapid process improvement event. I encouraged the group to kept one essential outcome in mind: Gift acknowledgements must be sent out to the correct donor every time.
Being clear about the goal helped galvanize the team to take action and be laser-focused in their redesign work. This focus shortened the time needed for the improvement work, as there were no side trips that consumed valuable team time and energy.
When your team needs to attain a given process outcome and is missing the mark, think process improvement. Whether your issue is an unhappy customer, overwhelmed employees, or a board demanding answers, start by identifying the specific outcomes needed. Communicating with employees about the missed mark and committing to resolve it can begin your journey to achieve impressive results.
Some organizations have built their process management skills and routinely fix inadequate outcomes successfully and quickly. You can, too. Contact me, Lee Kuntz, to talk through how your team can undertake rapid improvement that achieves process improvement results and promotes organizational success. Achieve Process Improvement Results: Start at the End
Susan sat in an operations meeting, listening to the discussion of this week’s customer complaints. This time a customer complained that he did not see his request in the online portal as expected. Last time it was about a missing transaction confirmation.
The subject line of the meeting invite was “Process Improvement.” However, Susan wondered: What is process improvement? And what does it have to do with addressing customer complaints?
What Is a Process?
To understand process improvement and what it can achieve, first we need to understand the basics.
A process is a series of work steps done to achieve a specific outcome. For example, each morning you strive to make your favorite cup of coffee. You have steps you do every day to create that tasty cup. These steps may be:
1. Measure water.
2. Pour water into coffee maker.
3. Turn on coffee maker.
4. Set brew time.
5. Place coffee cup under coffee maker spout.
6. Insert the coffee pod into the maker.
7. When coffee maker sounds, remove your cup.
8. Add just the right amount of the right creamer.
Outcome: Your favorite cup of coffee.
Whether it is making that favorite cup of coffee, creating requests in the online portal, or delivering transaction confirmations, the process consists of the steps taken to perform the work and the outcomes they produce.
What Is Process Improvement?
Process improvement is changing the steps of a process to improve the outcome. For example, back to that cup of coffee. Have you had a cup of coffee at a restaurant that was better than yours?
You may go home and try a different approach to get that better cup of coffee: adjust the brew time, use colder water, or use less water. You keep adjusting various steps until you get the desired results. Tweaking the coffee-making process in order to get a better outcome is process improvement.
Returning to Susan’ situation, the “Process Improvement” meeting is an opportunity for the team to improve how work is done to eliminate customer complaints.
What are the best process improvement steps to achieve the results you need? Check out my companion blog to learn about approaches that improve outcomes. 4 Process Improvement Approaches: Which One Works Best?
In summary, what is process improvement? When done well, it solves pain points seen at work each day. Process improvement can eliminate customer complaints, create capacity, solve thorny issues, and create a return on a major investment in a new system. When done well, process improvement changes how work is done and can help you achieve the results you need.
When you need to change outcomes of your processes for your complex service organization, contact me. We can talk through the outcome you need and how process improvement can get you there. Others have successfully redesigned their processes to improve outcomes. You can too.
So I really do appreciate you training my team this year. We did indeed achieve success from the overwhelming work we faced. The embarrassing operation errors are gone. Clients and leadership love us. This process improvement training transformed our business and culture.
Did I mention, we work very little overtime?
That’s my biggest problem right now!
With the holidays coming up, I think about how I’ve avoided my mother-in-law’s holiday dinners for years by claiming overtime. She serves headcheese, kishke, and pig snoots to name a few. These, well, SCARE ME. I may have to face my fears this year. Or maybe you could pull one more nugget out of your bag so I can avoid this event?
Hiding Out in the East
Let me check my bag – no, no advice on mother-in-laws. But heritage food – yes. I’ve had the privilege of sampling all these and agree with you. Luckily you do have time to figure out how you will handle this moment. The good news – overtime doesn’t have to be part of your plan. Good Luck!
Simply stated, process improvement is a change in work steps to improve outcomes. Through process improvement training you too can overcome overwhelming workloads, eliminate errors, and improve relationships with clients and leadership. Contact Lee Kuntz at 651-330-7076 to talk about what this might look like for your team.