When explaining process improvement, we like to use the laundry analogy. If you performed this household task the same way it used to be done, you’d be stuck for hours using a basin, a clothesline, and a lot of elbow grease. But because the process of doing laundry has evolved and improved over the years, you now have access to tools and resources that take care of it in a fraction of the time.
In this guide, we’re digging into everything you need to know about process improvement: what it is, why it matters, and when to do it. It’s time to scrub your smelly old processes and turn them into shiny new ones that improve your organization.
Keep reading for an introduction to process improvement.
What is process improvement?
In order to understand process improvement, you first need to grasp what a process is. “A process is a fancy way of saying all of the steps you take and all of the tasks you do to provide your product or service to your customers,” explains Amanda Russo, Founder and CEO of Cornerstone Paradigm Consulting, a business operations consulting firm.
With that in mind, process improvement is simplifying, streamlining, and automating your existing processes to make them better. You’re getting things done faster, cheaper, or easier than you were before.
Why process improvement can be the catalyst for growth
“In order to scale, you can’t really operate in an environment that’s cumbersome or requires a lot of manpower,” says Russo. Let’s look at a few of the ways process improvement inspires and supports business growth.
1. It simplifies and streamlines tasks
One survey of large-sized companies found that employees only spend 45% of their time on primary job duties. The rest of their working hours are spent on email, meetings, and administrative tasks.
Repetitive and mindless to-dos aren’t the best use of your team’s time and expertise –especially when research from McKinsey states that 45% of those tasks could be automated. Process improvement streamlines the way team members get work done, so they can spend more time and energy on the work that really matters.
2. It saves time and money
Let’s return to our laundry example for a moment. It’s obvious that it would take you a lot longer to wash your clothes with a washboard and a clothesline than if you could simply drop them in the washing machine and press a button. This inefficiency may just cost you time in the laundry example – but real-life inefficiencies in your business cost you money, too.
“It’s impressive how much manual processes actually cost a company. When you improve business processes, you spot areas where you’re investing unnecessary hours – which ultimately costs you," Russo says.
3. It requires that you critically analyze your organization
It’s easy to fall into the “we’ve always done it this way” trap. Change can be uncomfortable, and a lot of businesses end up running on autopilot. They resist altering long-standing processes because they don’t want to rock the boat.
Process improvement demands that you take a close look at the way your business is running so that you can boost efficiency – rather than going through the motions.
When should your business seek process improvements?
How can you know when one of your processes could use some spiffing up? Here are four red flags to look out for:
1. When you’re getting a lot of feedback from your customers
“Unhappy customers are usually the noisiest customers,” Russo advises. Maybe customers keep getting stuck at the same point in your onboarding process. Or, perhaps you’re hearing complaints that customer service responses are too slow. Those are signs it’s time to take a closer look at that process.
2. When you’re getting a lot of feedback from your team
Your team members are the ones with boots on the ground, so they have a lot of valuable insight into what processes are working well – and what ones are coming up short. If your team complains about a bottleneck or a step where things are breaking down, you know you need to evaluate how that work is getting done.
3. When you’re struggling to keep up with demand
Perhaps your business has regular periods where you experience a major uptick in demand. “You’re finding that every single time you get an impactful influx in your business, it’s hard to keep up,” says Russo. When you can’t manage growth, that’s a strong indicator that your processes need improvement.
4. When you’re doing something over and over again
Repeated processes are always worthy of a keen eye. So, when you realize, “Wow, we’ve had to do XYZ a lot over the past couple of months,” it’s smart to see how you’re handling that process – and how you could be doing it better.
How to start improving processes (now!)
You’ve identified some of your business processes that could be more effective and efficient. But now what? Here are the steps you should take to improve them.
1. Ask teammates for their opinions
“You have to start by understanding how you operate every single day,” Russo explains. “That doesn’t mean that you sit in a room and write out what the team does – you have to get those people in the room and talk about it.”
Leaders don’t always have an accurate grasp on how their team functions. In fact, one study found that 21.6% of top and middle managers think that their processes are handled better than their direct reports do.
Your goal here is to really understand how things are functioning, and you aren’t going to do that without the insights of your team members. Involve them in the process to understand the following:
What does the current process look like?
What’s working well?
What could be improved?
How can that issue be addressed?
That information will help you improve processes in a way that’s actually beneficial for your team.
2. Organize which processes need improvement first
You and your team have your work cut out for you. You’ve identified numerous business processes that could use some refining.
Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day and attempting to overhaul a bunch of processes at once will be overwhelming.
Pick one process to start with. If there’s one that’s particularly time-sensitive, that’s a smart starting point. Otherwise, select the process that will have the most impact on your team – whether it’s one that they’re doing most frequently or the one that they say is most tedious and cumbersome.
Again, don’t blindly pick a process on your own. Involve your team members in this decision.
3. Evaluate your technology
Having the right technology in place is a big piece of process improvement. Yet, an alarming amount of organizations don’t have the right resources available for their teams to do their jobs.
That not only hinders productivity (over 50% of respondents in one survey said outdated technology affected their productivity) but also reduces job satisfaction (with 57% of respondents saying outdated tech had a moderate to major impact on their satisfaction).
Now that you have a clear understanding of the pitfalls of your current processes, you can explore software and tool options to find the right solutions for your team. Don’t hesitate to do some free trials – they’ll help you thoroughly evaluate your choices.
4. Use improvement techniques and templates to design better processes
Next up, it’s time to integrate that technology into your process and optimize your steps. This is a highly-visual process (don’t try to do it all in your head) that should involve plotting the steps of your processes and seeing what can be condensed, improved, or eliminated altogether.