Process improvement: Been there, done that?

The following article originally appeared on

At Ricoh Australia, process improvement is part of the bedrock of the organisation. Since embarking on a quality improvement project just over 12 months ago, its processes have been documented, acted upon, referred to and improved on a continual basis. Teams from every department are empowered and equipped to develop ideas that improve quality and consistency, enhance customer service, reduce waste, streamline effort and make the business operate more efficiently. The benefits arising from the innovations introduced in recent months include more motivated staff and closer customer relationships. When you walk into the company, you can feel the energy and engagement.

Then there are organisations where process improvement has been attempted in the past with dramatically different results. Following a one-off project, seen as successful enough in its day, the resulting pages of procedures documents are viewed as something akin to an audit exercise. Any initial benefits have long been forgotten and eventually the value of even trying to manage those processes is questioned.

Such contrasting experiences raise a number of questions: How do some organisations get their process culture so right, while others experience failure? Why are some teams more engaged with process and improvement, while others just seem too busy for it all?

Here are the top three reasons process improvement efforts don’t work.

1. Too much focus on documentation

A fundamental problem with business process management projects over the last three decades has been the belief that process improvement is synonymous with documentation. There is a misguided belief that if we’re three quarters of the way through documenting our processes, we should be three quarters of the way towards realising the benefits from all this effort.

This attitude is an example of aiming at the wrong goal posts. If the processes are inefficient or poor quality, writing them down isn't in itself going to change a thing. Simply compiling a list of better processes won't change anything either.

To gain real benefits, process management must be intimately tied to improvement. It has to be continual and second nature. Almost a living, breathing part of everyday business.

2. Processes are left to the quality manager

While many organisations like the idea of establishing a special group – such as the quality team – to be responsible for processes, there are inherent risks in this approach if this is seen as ‘ownership’. The only people who really know how a process works, who are in a position to update or improve processes, and who can define processes in ways that resonate with staff, are those teams who carry out the processes day in, day out. They’ve actually always been the process owners, they just haven’t always accepted the responsibilities of process ownership.

Process owners in the business need to step up and take responsibility to own their process knowledge. And this information should be readily accessible to teams whenever they require it. Collaboration, improvement ideas, innovation – all come from process owners and everyday process users. Organisations need to invest the time and discipline to ensure their process information is relevant, used by teams, and forms the base for ongoing, controlled change.

The other risk when specialist teams become process owners is the risk that their time will become dominated by the administrative demands of managing other teams’ information, rather than actually helping them improve.

3. When there's no plan for “after” the improvement idea

There are two issues with this. First, collaborating to develop smarter processes is no guarantee these new processes will be executed consistently in future, or that the benefits of a new practice will be sustained. Organisations must find ways to maintain the engagement with teams, the awareness and ongoing conversation around the ‘right way’. They must help teams constantly agitate to improve existing practices. This doesn’t just happen – it requires process information to be stored and managed in a way that works for your team.

Secondly, there is no “after”. This is another area where the previous generation of process improvement projects typically fell down. Business process management (BPM) is an ongoing state of being. Processes provide the template for activity but they are constantly changing. Rather than relying on the knowledge of experienced team members (”trust me, I know what I’m doing” or “don’t worry, we don’t change that much”), improvements need to be systematically documented so they are captured and noted for the benefit of all.

Sustaining valuable process knowledge takes ongoing effort and requires a plan. A recent study commissioned by Promapp looking at BPM practices in more than 600 organisations across Australia, New Zealand and the United States, found that two-thirds of organisations have some sort of BPM system. More than eight in 10 organisations (83 per cent) believe BPM plays an important or very important role in helping them to meet their organisational roles.

Despite this, fully one-half of organisations say their BPM plans are under-resourced. Less than one in five have a chief process officer to drive process improvement and six in 10 organisations believe their processes are in worse shape than their competitors' processes.

Identifying the right outcomes

Recognising process success begins with knowing what outcomes you should be chasing. An organisation can't change or improve things if nothing is written down and agreed by teams. But it’s more than this. A healthy process culture means everyone is involved in an ongoing discussion around how to better service customers, or how to facilitate more effective teamwork.

The organisations that gain real benefit from process management are those who pursue improvement, and are committed to making slick processes a part of their culture: processes so good they enable agility and become a competitive advantage. These organisations think of improvement as an ongoing investment, a state of mind that is sustained in the same way we need to invest to sustain our core technology platforms, or our team’s skills and capabilities.

Ricoh Australia demonstrates how a process culture can bring market-changing benefits. With the right attitude and investment, a process culture can boost engagement and team collaboration. By making process management a living, breathing part of everyday business, organisations like Ricoh no longer risk the same failures that marked the process improvement efforts of 30 years ago.


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