What's a simple approach for driving business process improvement in your organization?

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Answered by: Shayna, An Expert in the Operations Category
There are many ways to approach business process improvement. Some, such as Six Sigma, require long, drawn-out studies and mathematical analysis. For this, dedicated experts should be engaged. However, there is a much simpler, yet effective way toward business process improvement that can also serve as a valuable team-building exercise for employees that can be done in a few hours.

To begin, clearly identify the work you want to simplify. For example, in a restaurant, you may want to enhance service provided by the wait staff. In a business setting, you might want to simplify order entry. Gather the people involved in the process for a unique opportunity to redesign their own jobs. This is an irresistible invitation, since people want to do their work as they believe it should be done. Ideally the group will be 4-5 people. Larger groups can be broken down into multiple teams.

Ask the assembled group to identify the process steps. "What is the first thing that happens?" is a good question. Then, using basic facilitation skills, ask "What happens next?" Discussion and debate is healthy, since not everyone does the steps the same. That's what you're trying to overcome by process simplification, but for now, get all the approaches mapped out on a flip-chart. Make sure the group is comfortable with what is represented by asking "Is this a fair depiction of the basic process?"

At this point, you have the process clearly outlined and it's time to improve it. For each step, ask the group "Why is this step necessary?" Again, encourage discussion to determine the benefits of the step and what the best practices are for doing it. You will probably have people arguing about the order or the importance of the steps. This is great! Just keep the discussion about the topic and not the individuals and encourage idea-sharing in a non-threatening way.

What should happen is that the group will agree on ways to combine, reorder, or eliminate steps. In a simple example, the waiters may agree that it's better to deliver the menus and explain the chef's specials at the same time, and before delivering drink orders rather than breaking it down into separate steps with specials explained after the drinks are delivered.

Toward the end of the session, make sure the new, or simplified, process is clearly understood by asking each group member to recite the steps. One group member can act as scribe, writing the steps down. Capture the benefits and the concerns about every step, then agree to try it. If there are any dissenters, or hold-outs who are resisting the change, give them the attention and control they are craving by explaining how important their opinion is, and asking them to try it for a week to determine why exactly it won't work. Most importantly, to encourage the change, thank everyone, agree to meet again to discuss the results, and reinforce that you are eager to learn from every person's experiences with the simplified process.

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