Business Process Optimization: Understanding Your Problem


by Salem Baer

Sometimes leadership may not really understand the details of a process, but if that process produces results, they don’t want to mess with the status quo. Despite many team members feeling like things are not as efficient or effective as it could be, nobody wants to mess with a complex, potentially fragile, process that “works.” This is known as “black box” syndrome.

So how do you beat “black box” syndrome? In order to come up with a better process, you first need to understand your current processes. The best way to do this is by mapping out the key activities that make a specific process, such as hiring an employee or ordering and shipping a product.

How to Map Key Activities:

1. Select a specific process to map. This can be anything such as accounting for a sale, launching a social media campaign, or filing customer feedback. If there are any pain points currently felt around a specific process, that’s probably a great place to start.

2. Identify tasks that take place within this process, and list them in the order they occur. You’re charting the process as it is today, not how it should be. Ask questions such as, “What really happens next in the process?,” “Does a decision need to be made before the next step?” or “What approvals are required before moving on to the next task?”

In this step, make sure you’re only writing down what you really understand. Now’s the time to dig deep to unearth your company’s procedures. Interview participants in the process as part of your mapping to understand what they are doing. This often helps to uncover inefficiency, miscommunication and potentially better ways to do things.

3. Start drawing.

Most flowcharts are made up of three main types of symbols:

Elongated circle: used for the start or the end of a process.

Rectangles: show instructions or actions

Diamonds: show decisions that must be made

We usually start mapping a process with a whiteboard, and once we’ve nailed down the process, we’ll convert it over digitally with Keynote to document it.

Begin by drawing an elongated circle shape, and labeling it ‘Start.’

Move to the first action or question, and draw a rectangle or diamond appropriately. Write the action or question down and draw an arrow from the start symbol to this shape.

Work through your whole process, showing actions and decisions appropriately in the order they occur. Link these together using arrows to show the flow of the process.

Where a decision needs to be made, draw arrows leaving the decision diamond for each possible outcome, and label them with the outcome.

Show the end of the process using an elongated circle labeled ‘Finish”

How to Review Your Map

1. First, challenge your map again as to whether it accurately represents your process as is. Are there any traces of wishful thinking?

2. For every step identified, ask why your company does it that way. Question whether work is duplicated, whether any other steps should be involved, and whether the right people are doing the right jobs. Carve out time to really discuss these questions.

3. For every problem identified, try to rephrase it as a “How might we” (HMW) question. For example:

  • “We spend too much time reviewing resumes of job applicants”. → “How might we reduce the amount of time spent processing resumes?”
  • “We spend too much time in meetings.” → “How might we make our meetings more productive and efficient?”
  • “We are not delivering to the client on a consistent basis.” → “How can we structure our workflow so that our delivery schedule works for us and the client?”

4. Finally, brainstorm answers to the HMW questions.

Next Steps

Identify which ideas can be implemented immediately, such as giving someone decision-making authority, and which blockers might require greater research and resources, like implementing new software or creating a new role.

Summary

You can’t improve your current process until you really understand how it works. The best way to do this is by mapping out the details of your process in a flow chart. As you review the chart, seek out the reasoning behind each step; ask, “Why?” Mark areas where you believe things could be made either more effective or efficient. For each step ask HMW questions. Separate marked areas into two different categories: quick wins and ideas that will probably require more research and resources. Go after the low-hanging fruit first, and assign a team to determine next steps for the bigger challenges.

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