No matter what industry you’re in, process improvement is a question of basic survival. To truly thrive, you need to lift your game on an ongoing basis.
Unfortunately, a lot of attempts to improve business processes fail because of one key reason: a lack of shared commitment to the exercise.
In this post, we’ll share our top six techniques to make continuous process improvement a shared goal across every part of your business. We’ll also take a look at some case studies along to way to help make things more practical and real.
Process improvement is the practice of mapping and analyzing existing business systems with a view to optimizing them for higher standards of speed, quality, and efficiency.
Sounds fancy, right? Really, it’s a question of making your business run faster and better.
In practice, process improvement can include anything from changes in production systems, to more efficient delivery scheduling, or even something as simple as making it easier for staff to book meeting rooms. Anything that reduces waste and improves output counts.
Process improvement can involve a systematic approach according to established methodologies like Six Sigma, Lean, Agile, or Kaizen. However, process improvement doesn’t have to be this structured - it also includes one-off improvements.
When it comes to improving business performance, a shared set of goals, and a wide commitment to those goals, is one of the most crucial elements to success.
As the Wall Street Journal points out, many attempts at process improvement fall apart because of a lack of stamina and attention in the long term, and the lack of a shared vision and commitment to the project.
The reasons for this are simple: improving core business processes can be really hard, as it requires a lot of people to work together. It’s also easy for people (even senior leadership) to fall back into routine habits.
Fortunately for you, we’ve got six excellent techniques to make sure your process improvement projects goals are shared across all levels of your business.
Let’s start with the basics - making sure everyone in your business knows what’s at stake when it comes to improving core systems and processes.
Process improvement can be painful at first. Before you improve current systems, you may need to face some harsh truths about the current state of affairs.
This means looking hard at existing processes, and being ruthless about identifying areas for improvement. This can be a challenge for some people, who may resist because they feel the status quo being threatened.
To cope with this obstacle, make sure everyone across your business knows what’s at stake. After all, you’re trying to maximize efficiencies and serve your customers faster. If people can’t get on board with this, they might have wider problems with motivation.
A great example of how to get employees on board with process improvement is the South African home improvement company Massbuild.
As a leading retail company with over 105 stores, Massbuild needed to find new ways to improve its online functions and grow web sales.
To do this, the company expanded its contact center staff from 25 employees to 132, and required all staff to take part in a 90-day challenge, which included:
Crucially, all Massbuild employees were involved in this process, and everyone knew what was at stake. The end result was an expanded and refreshed set of staff induction processes, improved customer service, and continuous quality improvement.
Without a shared understanding of the aims of this process, Massbuild wouldn’t have been able to pursue its system improvement goals with the same level of quality and speed.
To succeed with continuous process improvement, you need a strategy.
A process improvement strategy allows you to:
Take the time to map out how your shared commitment to process improvement will change your employees’ day-to-day experiences for the better. After all, process improvement can be an ambiguous concept - you need to make it easy to understand.
You should also underpin this strategy with a comprehensive project management plan, outlining expected milestones, the dates for these, and who is responsible for what.
For a great example of a process improvement strategy in action, look to the UK National Health Service’s Model for Improvement.
This strategy outlines a series of key questions to help workers across the NHS understand what process improvement is, and what it means for them.
The NHS Model for Improvement:
By making process improvement tangible for NHS staff, this strategy helps to build wider ownership of these improvements, and has led to a range of positive outcomes.
Successful businesses recognize that process improvement is a mindset, not an event.
There may come a day when you can say you have shifted your systems and processes to the desired state, but this probably won’t involve any one single moment of glory.
Instead, you and your teams need to recognize that process improvement is an ongoing process. In practice, this means having regular check-ins on milestones, and measuring progress over time to ensure your efforts are having the intended effect.
For a great example of process improvement over time, look to fast food giant Taco Bell.
In the late 80s and early 90s, Taco Bell committed to a an ambitious series of process improvements that positioned the company to flourish in the decades to come. These changes involved everything from restaurant size, product sourcing, manager training, and more.
Implementing these sweeping changes required Taco Bell employees at every level to measure their performance against expected benchmarks, and also to communicate with others about any shortfalls over time.
By making process improvement an ongoing commitment for all staff (not just managers and up), Taco Bell helped to guarantee the lasting positive impact of these changes.
As with many things in business, communication is key to process improvement.
Your employees need to know what to expect when it comes to systems changes, and senior management needs to be open and transparent.
Process improvement can be daunting. To cope with these demands, your staff need clear and consistent messages about the goals and progress.
Footwear and clothing giant Adidas is a great example here. In 2015, Adidas unveiled a programme to more closely align its internal communications strategy with business need.
To make sure this program succeeded, Adidas adopted an open communication approach, engaging with employees via custom video platforms and bringing everyone in the company together each quarter to discuss financial metrics and progress.
As a result, Adidas employees had access to frequent and consistent communications about changes which could affect their jobs. This helped to reduce staff stress, encourage wider ownership of process improvements, and make sure these changes lasted over time.
Getting process improvements right is largely a question of prioritization, especially for larger businesses.
To build a wider sense of ownership in these goals, you need to assess your existing systems and processes and establish which need attention and improvement most urgently.
Remember, your staff time and energy are finite resources - you need to dedicate these to the most worthy improvements first.
Household goods company Colgate-Palmolive knows this well. In 2007, Colgate adopted its Colgate Business Planning (CBP) project to review and revamp core manufacturing and distribution processes, and to modernize its systems for future demand.
In order to meet aggressive timelines, the CBP project had to ruthlessly prioritize process improvement goals. In practice, this meant focusing on implementing core IT systems before other changes, and picking critical systems before addressing other matters.
Without this prioritization, the company would have risked a lengthy and expensive project.
Finally, there’s the question of methodology.
While some managers prefer an unstructured approach, there are a huge range of process improvement methodologies to help guide improvements to business systems. These include Six Sigma, Lean, Total Quality Management, Kaizen, Just-In-Time, and Agile.
Each of these methodologies involve different tools, systems, and software, and include different ways to promote improvements as a shared goal.
This makes it important to do your research, and to know which of these methods is right for you. For example, if you’re looking to simply cut down on process waste, then Lean or Value Stream Mapping might be best. If your goal is to improve the overall quality of output, Six Sigma might be more suitable.
We’ll take a look at this topic in more depth in a future post, so remember to check back in. For now, be sure to read up on the different methodologies available, and bear in mind that some may be better suited to your particular goals.
As we’ve seen, you can create a shared commitment to process improvement by:
With these strategies, you’ll be well-placed to implement a successful process improvement project, build wider ownership of these changes, and make new systems stick in the long run.
So, reflect on the suggestions and case studies above, and think about how you might apply some of these tips and tricks in your business to ensure your continuous improvement.
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