What If Your Best Process Was Your Process of Process Management and Improvement?
What if the thing your organization was best at was continuously improving your processes? What if your entire workforce specialized in making improvements in your work practices every day?
TL;DR — the result would be profound and massively positive; and it's not so hard to achieve.
Every organization is doing some form of process improvement — everyone wants to make things work better. However, despite the easy acceptance that continuous improvement is A Good Thing, the results too often show two real-world characteristics: it's not continuous, and there's not much demonstrable, delivered improvement. Management of modern organizations is demanding and complicated. Resources are low and demands are high. The current state is something to be survived, and the future state is, at best, more of the same. The performance improvement bar is set very low — success is the absence of failure.
But it doesn't need to be that way.
There are many solid, practical methods for effective process analysis and improvement. These include the long-established approaches such as Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, Theory of Constraints, and TQM, as well as modern developments such as NESTT and SprintPIP. Or an organization may have developed its own approach. The particular method is not the issue. It's not the absence of proven methodologies that prevents effective process improvement through innovation and problem resolution.
What would it mean to have serious experience and expertise continually delivering valued process improvements across the organization; to have a robust improvement-aware culture with widespread ability to deliver consistently and sustainably?
Well, the answer to that is obvious, isn't it? By any measure, organizational performance would be improving. Opportunities would be discovered and realized. Problems would be fixed in a way that meant they wouldn't happen again — as opposed to getting good at dealing with them when they happen repeatedly. An unintended, but perhaps even more valuable, outcome would be the development of a genuinely collaborative organizational culture. Nirvana?
How many people in your organization would have, or could be allowed to have, say, just two hours per week that could be used in executing a well-understood process analysis and improvement methodology? My guess is that it would be a considerable majority from every level; some may have more than two hours available and, of course, some will have fewer. I'll leave you to do your own arithmetic, but it seems likely that there is a considerable untapped resource in our organizations. If we were able to apply that resource to enthusiastically improving the way work gets done by removing constraints, intercepting deteriorating performance trends, and actively capitalizing on new ideas, the benefits would be considerable. Nirvana?
Aspiring to a genuinely nirvanic state sets the bar too high, but it is possible to create an environment where Improve Process Performance is your best performing process.
First, catch your architecture. That's not as hard as it sounds, and certainly not as hard as some approaches make it. I've written about this extensively in many places. A quick summary:
- Start with strategy (vision/mission or whatever form your statement of strategic intent takes).
- Derive from the strategy the promises made to stakeholders.
- These promises define high-level processes, usually core processes.
- Decompose those core processes when you need to investigate an opportunity or problem.
- Determine the management and support processes — a generic reference model will be a useful starting point here.
So now we have a picture of the organization as a set of processes. Note that one of the management processes is Improve Process Performance, and this describes the processes for process management and improvement in detail.
That leads us to another vital requirement. There needs to be a well-understood and effective method for process analysis and improvement, and preferably just one for the whole organization so a shared capability can be developed. That "shared capability" will be a powerful asset. Imagine having 10s, 100s, or even 1000s of internal staff able to lead effective process improvement projects (PIPs)! You decide which PIP methodology will work best for the organization, but keep in mind it's not about the methodology; it's about the results that are delivered.
Next question — who's in charge while all this is going on? The organization chart usefully and importantly tells us about vertical management, i.e., up and down the chart, and it defines functional groups. We get work done through cross-functional processes, the horizontal view, and the organization chart says nothing practical about who manages across the organization. Enter the Process Owner role (or whatever term you prefer) which is accountable for tracking process performance and taking appropriate action when there is a new idea to be tested, performance is outside of an acceptable range or trending in that direction, or process KPIs and targets need to be set or reviewed. I've also written about this in detail in many places so this summary will do for now. Suffice to say here that we need a management add-on to correct the horizontal vision problem.
What about the Office of BPM (OBPM) (aka Center of Excellence, Center of Expertise, BPM Group, etc.) in all this? Isn't it their job to do all the process analysis and improvement? No, it's not. Their main job is to build process management and improvement capability across the organization. If every process change initiative must be run by the central group, and they are successful, they soon become the Office for the Prevention of Process Improvement. Process management and improvement capabilities are most effective if they are dispersed throughout the organization in a controlled way. Organizational performance won't be improved by creating new bottlenecks.
If there are now lots of PIPs happening across the organization, where do all the project resources come from? Ideally, from internal staff, i.e., from the process subject matter experts. Remember the untapped resource of 'spare' staff time? Maybe there is a requirement for external support to get started and build momentum, perhaps also for an occasional external review, but creating excessive dependence on external resources will be a handicap to continuous improvement.
A key process in our architecture is Improve Process Performance. This needs to be managed and improved like any other process. It needs a process owner, KPIs, targets, performance reports, and PIPs. Proof of effective and sustained outcomes is required of this process more than any other.
If all of this was happening, what would have changed? Many people across the organization would be actively and continually involved in the targeted analysis and improvement of known business processes in a consistent way. Organization-wide capability would have developed. The organizational culture would have changed to incorporate a very high degree of collaboration. Continuous improvement will now be a reality, continuously delivering valued change.
There are some common ways in which process-based management goes wrong; ways in which Improve Process Performance fails to be the best performing process. Some key failure modes are discussed below. Perhaps you have encountered others?
Centralizing work in the OBPM. I discussed this above, but it's so important and can't be left off this list. We need to be very clear about the proper role of the BPM support team. If active process management is new to the organization then a central support team will do more of the work in the short term. However, if that continues in the medium and longer term, then process improvement will be limited, generally seen as someone else's job, and ultimately not successful.
Waiting for a better time. The best time to start the process-based management journey is (almost always) now. You could start with just one process. An incremental rollout is always going to be better than a big bang approach. So, just start.
Stopping at To Be. Too many process improvement projects deliver more recommendations than changes. The objective is not to design the To Be; what we want is a new As Is. Changes must happen, and the results they deliver must be tested, proven, and valued.
Failing to manage human change. Process-based management is a different way to see an organization and what it does. It is a different way for staff to understand their personal role in how the organization delivers value to its stakeholders. The changes can be challenging. A continuous support program is required, and it must be targeted to respond to the specific requirements of the different cohorts in the stakeholder group.
Underestimating the need to communicate. People need to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, how you are doing it, who is doing what, and where you have been successful. And they need to have that information restated and updated on multiple channels continually.
Can you make your process of process management and improvement the most effective process in your whole organization? Yes, that's quite possible. It's not a trivial thing to do, but neither is it complex or risky. The building blocks are clear. Rollout can (and should) be incremental. The benefits will be measured, proven, and profound.
What if … what if you didn't even try?
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