Tips for Business Process Improvement

I once came across a trainer who equated process specialists to purple squirrels because of how hard they are to come by. Process specialists have the ability to interview stakeholders effectively, analyze feedback and have a deep understanding of at least one improvement methodology. Another course I attended recently on strategic business process improvement struck a cord so I’ve compiled some fundamental nuggets analysts should be aware of in improving business processes.

Business Process Improvement (BPI) is a systematic improvement of business processes and can be as simple as improving ineffective human activities. It is usually applied when there are no defined methodologies in place like Six Sigma, Lean, etc.

Why Improve Processes?

A key function of business analysts is being able to identify business needs and solutions to business problems. Outdated or convoluted processes waste time and money. A great place to start as a BA is to improve existing business processes.

Nugget 1: Start with clear objectives in mind

Start each process improvement effort with clear business objectives or you may end up looking for random improvements that are either out of context or may not generate significant business value. You can start by identifying what the organizational goals/business pains are and then identifying processes that fall within that context.

Nugget 2: Map your processes

You cannot improve what you do not understand. You must be able to understand and map existing processes to define the to-be processes (the vision). Bear in mind that processes feed into one another. I like the way Dayo Awe used the example of rivers flowing into one another or a larger body of water (ocean) as an illustration of the interconnectedness between processes. Processes flow into one another; one process could flow into a bigger process with the end of that process being the beginning of another.

If you’re lucky, you may not have to start mapping processes from a blank page. It’s important to note that in some cases, there's a difference between the way a process is documented and what happens in reality. Besides this, existing documents may be outdated and not reflect the changes that have been made to processes over time.

Business processes can be mapped using flow charts or business process models which are more dynamic and can be used to capture complex events and scenarios. Avoid getting lost in the complexity – you can never map a process with 100% accuracy.

Nugget 3: Identify the choke points

Some refer to these as bottlenecks. Identify those points where delays are introduced into the process. You can do this by interviewing process participants, observing the process in action or simulating the process to identify the points at which improvements can be made. Evaluate each step in the process by taking a value-oriented approach. Choke points could arise from unnecessary sign-offs/approvals and unsmooth hand-offs. Though it’s important to maintain quality, the analyst still needs to question the value of checks and reviews.

Nugget 4: Capture the customer’s perspective

The customer’s perspective is central in any process improvement work you undertake. For example, when the customer insists on a more competitive price, the improvement team should evaluate their processes for areas of possible cost reduction so that the business can retain its customers.

Nugget 5: Consider your options

When evaluating a process, you should ask questions:

  • What is the purpose of this step? Does it add value or not? Do I eliminate, optimize or automate it?
  • Does each step in the process have a clear and logical input and output?
  • Are there alternatives for accomplishing each step?
  • How are exceptions handled?
  • Consider parallel processing – this is one of the fundamental and most straightforward methods of process improvement. Identify where two or more related processes can run simultaneously, with the same starting and concluding points to improve efficiency.

BPI plays to the core strengths of most analysts and relies on good requirements elicitation. It’s a ground-level approach to BPM that most analysts can undertake with minimal resources.