January 25, 2021

A 4-Step Guide On How to Improve Your Business Processes

Have you ever wondered what impedes us to be really productive at work and to the tasks that we were originally hired for? In this article, I would like to raise attention to an underrated, yet crucial topic: the importance of continuous process improvement.

A 4-Step Guide On How to Improve Your Business Processes

Remember a situation or a job in which you needed to do mundane, repetitive tasks that could have been done automatically? Or when you were struggling with obsolete systems and out-of-date processes? Have you ever wondered what impedes us to be really productive at work and to the tasks that we were originally hired for?

In this article, I would like to raise attention to an underrated, yet crucial topic: the importance of continuous process improvement.

But what is that and why is it important?

During my past professional experiences, when I asked colleagues why do we do processes in a certain way, I heard many times the following sentences "Because XY told me X years ago to click here/ do like this" or "because the system or the software works like that". These responses always astonished me. Nobody went through this process for years and asked/checked that these steps are still necessary. Or even more, if there is a tool or solution that could improve, simplify, or even automate the workflow.

At many companies, processes are designed based on the business need at a certain point of time with a particular technology (a specific version of a software, tools which are available at that time). Then, at best, they get documented and put in a hidden folder that no one will open ever except if there is an audit. Time goes by, business needs change, technology improves, people soon land on Mars and still, we are clicking on the same buttons as 10 years ago and sending documents in e-mail because no one looked into since then if there would be a faster, better leaner solution to achieve the same result.

Yes, I am talking about the bug which is not fixed for years (due to "lack of resources") and which constantly interrupts processes, copy data manually from one system to another, or ask colleagues for information that should be easily accessible with three clicks.

Obsolete processes are similar to energy vampires: they suck out our productivity and energy.

And more importantly: they steal valuable working time during which we could have done more creative and value-added tasks that actually needs a human's mind and attention.

A 4-step guide on how to improve your processes

Continuously improving processes is crucial for all kinds of activities regardless of company size and industry. You don't need to right away invest millions into new software or hire a team of external consultants to achieve results. Start with these simple steps, and you have already done a tremendous step to improve your productivity.

1. Verify your current processes

It is already a good start if you sit down and go through your processes one by one by asking the right questions: What is the use case of this process? Why are we doing this step specifically? Is it really necessary? Isn't there another, quicker, or more effective way to reach the same result? Can this process be automated, and if yes, how? Can some part of the workflows be automated? (To see the difference between workflow and process click here.) Is it easier if we use external software or build it in-house?

Moreover, it is crucial that you discuss the processes with those who actually involved in them called process stakeholders. They can provide valuable insight and untold difficulties that are often hidden from management. Look for bugs, bad process designs, unnecessary steps, and other inefficiencies that hinder workflows.

2. Design your processes

Being aware of your processes and discussing them with process stakeholders is the very first step in process improvement, but to make these efforts long-lasting you need also to document them.

The easiest way is to create process diagrams or flowcharts. Visually representing your processes will help you to have a better understanding of the current workflows and highlight illogicalities and inefficiencies. It can also serve as a basis for further improvements.

You can use tools such as Whimsical or draw.io to create, store, or even embed or share diagrams into other tools such as JIRA or Notion to share them with colleagues.

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An extract of an example workflow chart created with Whimsical. Source: whimsical.com

3. Create knowledge bases

Another important step is documentation. A detailed, step-by-step, easily understandable description of each workflow has numerous advantages: it can fasten the training of new colleagues and serve as the official "How To" guide for the correct execution of each step of a workflow and all the necessary information that is needed such as credentials, links, contact persons etc. This can significantly reduce the unnecessary calls and e-mail outreaches between colleagues that often distract us during work and fasten the executions of the workflow.

Instead of using separate Word documents, the easiest way is to create a comprehensive knowledge base where colleagues can easily access workflow descriptions, update or modify or update them if needed. Choose a platform that is easy-to-use, user-friendly, flexible, and compatible with other tools. Notion is a great example, but you can check out this link for similar tools.

4. Fix your bugs

In numerous cases, the root cause of inefficiencies in workflows are simple software errors, often referred to as bugs in the IT community. These small errors often cause inconvenience and workarounds. At first sight, they might not seem an important matter to dedicate IT resources to, however, if we look at how much valuable work time do they waste, especially if it concerns daily tasks, we might get surprised.

Let's take the example of a 5-minute task which - thanks to an annoying bug - is done in 15 minutes instead. Let's say that we are talking about a daily task. The workaround due to the bug is 10 minutes a day, which adds up to 3.3 hours in a month and overall 40 hours in a year.

This means that the cost of an unfixed bug which causes a daily 10 minutes workaround wastes an entire weekly salary of an employee.

Now that cost of fixing that bug does not seem so expensive, right? Not to talk about those lost 10 minutes that could be used for more value-added tasks (or for a coffee break :).

Thoughts to take away

Process improvement is a mindset that can't be learned in a week. It needs effort, determination, and last but not least, allocated resources. But once it bears its fruits it leads to leaner, simpler, and more streamlined workflows and processes, happier and more productive colleagues, more satisfied customers, and overall improved company performance.

Already thrilled to learn more about automation and process improvement? :)

Follow me on LinkedIn and let's share and discuss our experience! In case you have a specific problem in which you need help, don't hesitate to connect and drop me a message at szilvia@szilvialaszlo.com!