Intermediate Process Management

Imagine that you’re training for a new role in another department. You have their SOPs, and you’re following them to the letter. The issue is that everyone else is not. What do you do when the processes are there, but there’s still something missing?

Now that you’ve moved beyond the basics, it’s time to look at the deeper concepts at work. Not surprisingly, these involve psychology, sociology, and in some instances, even computing. Why do people choose not to follow the rules? And how can you create watertight processes to keep your business afloat even in the most challenging times?

What does a poorly managed process look like?

You’ve certainly met the person who lives life by the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While this might work if you’re striving to be “good enough,” this isn’t the model for a successful business. Business process management looks critically at processes and asks if the current way is, in fact, the best way.

In 2016, a study by Łukasz Tartanus showed that 69% of the businesses he studied had documented their processes. However, only 4% had taken measurements of those processes and improved them after recording them. How do you know what is working if you don’t keep track of your progress?

The costs of poor monitoring are straightforward. When flawed procedures are repeated, these processes can cost you thousands of dollars, hundreds of hours, and result in a significant reduction in your company’s growth without having an apparent reason why.

How do you know what processes are hurting your company? The hallmark of a poorly managed process is that it’s not followed as it’s written. Companies grow, technology changes and procedures need to be updated. If a method is not used as intended, then it’s a good candidate for optimization.

To picture the effects a little deeper, imagine that you’re looking at the standard operating procedures to post on your company’s social media. How could you work with them if they covered platforms that haven’t been used in years? Processes that are outdated or poorly maintained leave companies vulnerable to knowledge gaps and incomplete training. Old instructions don’t reflect the current or efficient method.

Why do processes fail?

There is no one reason why processes fail. They can fail due to technology, inadequate knowledge, lack of incentive, or culture of non-compliance within your company.

The first few reasons have relatively simple fixes. If your staff isn’t using the technology that your design requires, ask them why. It may not be intuitive, require extensive manual input, or be inferior compared to other options. Teams can address problems resulting from a lack of knowledge with adequate training. Managers can adjust ineffective incentives to learn to align closer with their employees’ values (think recognition, time off, or opportunities to develop professionally in addition to your usual financial rewards).

The last issue is a little more complex. How do you change a culture that says, “Processes are only followed when it’s convenient?” Start-ups, companies experiencing high-speed growth, and those with small teams are most frequently the victims. So how do you fix a cultural issue?

Often, this starts with a fresh pair of eyes. The best person to identify cultural issues affecting compliance is someone from outside your organization. They can help upper management set the example and lead the team in embracing efficient procedures.

When good processes go bad

Let’s clarify for a moment; it’s not that the processes themselves are flawed. Even methods that work perfectly on paper can change once applied in the real world. This phenomenon is primarily because of human nature.

You may remember being asked as a kid if you would jump off a bridge if your friends did it too. Would you sacrifice the right choice for the popular choice? Straying from the path you’ve forged for success carries a similar risk. However, if deviance from the norm is part of your company’s culture, you may find yourself teetering on the edge of the bridge even when you know what you “should” be doing.

Sociologist Diane Vaughan first explained this concept. She called it the normalization of deviance, a phrase used to describe a root cause underlying significant disasters.

One example of a disaster caused by the normalization of deviance is the failed Challenger launch. In this instance, the contractor tasked with building the solid rocket boosters had ongoing quality issues with the putty used to seal the O-rings. Despite replacing it with a putty that performed slightly better, it still showed problems.

However, the reason it was allowed to pass was that the company deemed it “within the bounds of acceptable risk.”

What is an acceptable risk? Plainly, it is the amount of inefficiency that your organization is willing to tolerate. If this seems like a loose threshold, it is. Your organization’s overall values can define its views towards perfectionism, measurements of quality, or simply what is and is not accepted within the company.

How do you fix a culture of non-compliance?

A cultural problem needs a cultural fix. If you find that even your best procedures are not being followed, take a look at what is happening. Do your top-level executives follow the procedures as much as entry-level employees? Are your team members even aware that these processes exist?

Thankfully, a simple approach creates a new culture valuing quality at every stage of the process. Let’s take a look at how one company made quality a core value.

Toyota and the Andon Cord

“Andon” was originally a Japanese word used to describe a paper lantern. It was adopted by Sakichi Toyoda, pioneer of the Japanese industrial revolution, to indicate shining a light on an issue.

Early in industrial Japan, a problem early on in the production line would affect quality in every following step, resulting in an overall inferior product. For example, in textile mills, if the needle broke while weaving the fabric, every step from then on would foremost be dealing with a fragile material full of runs.

Sakichi Toyoda first invented the automatic power loom in 1924, which shut off the machine when it sensed the broken needle, allowing it to be replaced and fixed before weaving defective cloth.

Later, this concept grew when implemented at the Toyota System Corporation. In the auto-making plant, there was a physical cord hung from the ceiling that, when pulled, would stop the entire assembly line and indicate which station had pulled it. Why? Much like the textile mills, one minor defect in one production stage would create a cascade of problems resulting from that mistake.

Naturally, when buying cars, safety is a foremost concern. While many would gawk at the idea of one assembly line worker stopping the entire production floor, this created a company-wide culture that valued speaking up about issues, even if it turned out to be nothing at all.

When the cord was pulled and the line shut down, a supervisor would come to the station where an employee pulled it, investigate the issue, and either fix it or confirm that nothing was wrong. This original concept was called Jidoka. The mindset behind Jidoka is that a system that an opportunity to resolve an issue prevents problems from happening in the first place.

This mindset was created by the “kata” of finding and resolving errors. A kata is a pattern of behaviors that goes on automatically. By repetition, rewarding the behavior even when it was a false alarm, and consistency from all company parts, the Toyota name became synonymous with quality.

Why your Andon cord doesn’t get pulled

Auto manufacturing plants have since tried to implement the Andon cord but often fail to see the same results. The key to the lack of results is that the solution involved more than a cord; it involved an entire culture.

If you find that your company still experiences frequent errors despite your best processes, look at what motivates your employees to highlight and fix their mistakes.

Naturally, we are human beings. Our reactions are not perfect, and we experience emotions like fear, apprehension, and anxiety upon noticing something is wrong. A careful manager will look deeper than the surface issue and reward an employee with what THEY value upon seeing the error. Why? If they feel risk “punishment,” directly or indirectly, and only get a pat on the back on other occasions, any person would choose to take the safer route. A good organization knows that highlighting and fixing its flaws IS the safer route.

Creating Bullet-Proof Processes

While process management inherently involves trial and error, there are tested steps that help you avoid mistakes and prioritize success. There are many different approaches and software options available for your processes, but don’t get overwhelmed. At the heart of it, the process is simple.

Regardless of the technology or specific process you use, the underlying concepts are the same. All modeling programs, methodologies, and software are designed to let you complete the five stages of business process management. Those stages are process design, process modeling, process execution, business activity monitoring, process optimization, and re-engineering. These steps help a company understand what is happening at a granular level and take calculated risks for more growth.

Process Design

The first step of process management involves creating a visual representation of the different parts involved in your task. While it is possible to do this with low-tech options, like post-its or drawings, it is strongly advised not to use them.

While non-digital options may be tempting, they limit how much you can get out of your process management. For example, everyone that needs to use this process will need access to a physical copy of the diagram. Also, product owners cannot make changes affecting all users efficiently. Business process modeling software allows this to happen within seconds.

Process Execution

This is where the results from your first step are put to the test. The procedure is repeated as designed to ensure it includes all the moving parts of a given task. Here, you will see if the process is missing information or includes unnecessary steps. Then, you can tweak it until it works as designed.

Business Activity Monitoring

How can you define success if you can’t measure it? This step involves identifying what pieces of information you will look for to track your progress. If you’re shipping clothes to your customers, you might look at the time it takes for an order to be delivered or the percentage of goods that get returned.

Process Optimization

Now that you’ve measured your data, you can see which parts are the most and least efficient. The above company may have noticed that one of their shipping services takes longer to deliver packages than another or that a particular shirt has higher return rates than their other pieces. The current information lets them test hypothetical changes to see where they can improve.

Now that the changes have been made, the company can implement tracking and monitor the health of its operations. They can have their system update an order’s status as “delivered” when the delivery person scans the package upon dropoff. Then, employees can view the average delivery time with a visual dashboard in their software.

Once the best options for improvement have been identified, the company can implement the change and test the new step. For example, after switching to a new shipping service and using a more durable fabric in their shirts, the company sees faster shipments and fewer returns, leading to a better customer experience.

Re-Engineering

Now that an organization has a clear view of what is happening on a granular level, it can take bigger, calculated risks to boost its success. If they want to redesign their delivery process, they could try hiring their own drivers who use more efficient routes for faster delivery. Or, if a project isn’t reaching its goals after changes to one part of its process, the person responsible can redesign the process to get the desired result.

Summary

It is tempting to get discouraged when your initial processes don’t work. Thankfully, this is part of process management. The attention devoted to fixing errors yields rich results for business owners who are not afraid to take a critical look.

The most valuable thing you can do as a company is foster a culture where improvement is rewarded, opinions are valued, and changes happen. Regardless of how well your processes are documented now, using sound business process management techniques sets them up to improve. Take a look at the ways that good internal and external communication within a company yields tangible benefits.

Originally published at https://kamyarshah.com.

Business Management Consultant providing Interim COO and Interim CMO services.