It can be easy to become comfortable with the processes your business has in place. They’ve been working for you for months, maybe years. Everyone is used to them. Besides, introducing change can be disruptive — even expensive, assuming you get buy-in for a new process. Why switch up what works?
But you’ll know when this comfort turns into complacency. You’ll notice costs rising in new places, productivity slowing down for seemingly no reason, once solid workflows becoming suddenly undependable. If you’re wondering what’s changed, then you’re asking the wrong question. In business, everything is changing constantly.
This is why you need to make continuous process improvement a part of your business strategy.
What is process improvement?
Process improvement is the act of identifying and improving existing business processes in order to increase performance, save costs, become faster and more efficient, and/or improve the quality of your work. It is, in short, a strategy for remaining effective.
Process improvements can vary widely in scope. You could take an expansive approach and look at your business as a whole, analyzing how work gets done from the top down and bottom up, identifying opportunities for potential improvement along the way. Or you could take a more focused approach and limit yourself to specific areas, such as customer service or resource management.
Regardless of how you interpret it, the goal of process improvement should be to make your business run better than it was before.
Benefits of improving processes
Here are some real-world benefits you can get from putting in place a process improvement plan today:
Uncover hidden bottlenecks
Taking the time to look into how your business functions can reveal areas you may not have realized were inefficient. This may be employees who aren’t using software correctly or vendors that are delaying shipments. Whatever the case, you don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s worth looking for what you can improve.
Increase business agility
By identifying what you can improve, you will make it easier for your organization to adapt and grow alongside changing market conditions. For instance, by examining your business processes, you may realize you’ve neglected an entire segment of customers. Addressing vulnerabilities like this can help make your entire business more competitive.
Improve employee morale
Eliminating repetitive, tedious, or even entirely extraneous tasks from your team’s responsibilities is one of the easiest ways to make your employees happier. As a company grows, it can be easy for these kinds of tasks to accumulate. You may be surprised by how many you find. Look for what you can get rid of, then try to automate the rest. As employee morale increases, so will their productivity.
Gain happier customers
Successful process improvements will translate to more efficient workflows, faster response times, and possibly even more competitive costs. Along with happier, more engaged employees, this will all trickle down to the customer and translate into a better experience. And that will likely mean more repeat orders and increased company growth — making any work you put into process improvements well worth it.
The 5-step guide to improving processes
Making business process improvements can feel intimidating at first. Where is the best place to begin? What should you prioritize?
While there is no one way to address your processes — it will ultimately depend on too many unique business factors — the following guide can be a good place to start crafting your process improvement strategy.
1. Identify the problem you're trying to solve
Making improvements for the sake of improvements may be well-intentioned, but you can be much more effective when you are focused on fixing a specific problem. This will help maximize your efforts on only the most pressing issues, saving you from analyzing processes that may not need improvements.
But what’s the best way to identify the problems that matter most? This is a good time to go back to your business goals. What did your company originally set out to do? How are your current workflows falling short of these objectives?
For example, if you’re trying to build a product that simplifies your customers’ lives, but your onboarding process has become unnecessarily complex, then you’ve just identified a high-level problem you need to solve.
2. Understand the current workflow or process
Before you start introducing changes, it can be a good idea to make sure you fully understand how the current workflows or processes are functioning. Make sure you talk to anyone already involved in them so that you can get the full picture. If the process is complex, you may want to draw out a flowchart so that you can better visualize it and identify potential opportunities. These could be areas where you notice extra steps, possible cost overruns, or other inefficiencies.
3. Identify the bottlenecks, blockers, or dependencies
Now it’s time to start breaking apart these work processes in order to identify the specific parts that need work. How you identify these parts will be up to you, but a good place to start is with value: if it is not directly creating value for the customer in some way, then it is likely a good candidate for improvement.
Unless these issues are glaring, this may be a good time to run a retrospective on a recent project or process. Bring any relevant stakeholders into the same room and invite them to have an open-ended discussion about what could have gone better. Look for any common bottlenecks or blockers that are causing delays, as well as any dependencies you can identify. Once you have alignment on these issues, this will be your roadmap for improvement.
Related: A foolproof guide to running effective retrospectives
4. Create a new workflow that addresses the key issues
With all of your issues identified, you can start actually coming up with your process improvements. This step is your chance to be creative. Invite everyone to participate, especially those who are already involved and/or directly affected by the processes you’ve singled out for improvement, and encourage them to explore and remain open to any ideas.
Remember, the goal here is to create more efficient, effective, and streamlined workflows. That means not only looking for redundancies or other places to cut, but also adding in any necessary support frameworks or quality control steps. If necessary, don’t be afraid to break a task into two or more parts or add extra team members if it helps make it easier to accomplish. Whatever will get the job done.
5. Test and iterate until the process is improved
When you’ve talked through every pain point and come up with a list of possible solutions, it’s time to start putting your plan into action. Don’t be surprised if your solutions don’t work like you intended. Often, you won’t know if something is right until you try it.
Try not to put in place every change at once. Instead, take a more methodical approach. Implement only a handful of improvements at once, noting where they work and where they fall short. Through this process of iteration, you can start introducing a series of continuous improvements that get you to your goals.
Related: Don’t forget to map out your process — Get started with Mural.
5 tips to remember while improving processes
Identifying problems, working through solutions, and implementing changes that result in long-term improvements is not something that will happen overnight. Instead, you’ll have to be patient as you wait and see what works best for your business. However, as long as you can remember the following tips, you’ll likely be on the right track:
Get all the relevant stakeholders involved
Not only will this give you better insight into current processes and issues, it will also help get you buy-in once you start introducing improvements. If people are a part of the process, they’ll also want to be a part of the solution.
Use a template to speed up the improvement process
Most companies don’t have formal processes in place for every task or goal. This can make talking about and coming up with improvements difficult. Instead, templatizing this process can give stakeholders a visual guide to follow, making it easier to identify challenges and come up with solutions.
Try Mural’s workflow template to visualize the steps of a project or process.
Be sure to identify and address the root causes
Misidentifying the problem — or only focusing on one of its symptoms instead — can be a costly mistake. Avoid this by starting out with your high-level organizational goals, then identifying how you are falling short in meeting them. This will keep you focused as you start developing more specific improvements.
Pro-tip: Try Mural’s fishbone diagram template to help identify root causes of problems or inefficiencies
Revisit the process after implementation to ensure it works as intended
Even after multiple rounds of iteration, external factors can still affect your processes. Market forces may introduce additional complexities, or a competitor may require you to adapt. This makes it important to revisit and continuously monitor what is working and what isn’t. Otherwise, you may fall behind.
Measure the metrics you aim to improve both before and after
Concrete proof that your improvements are actually effective can be found in the numbers behind them. Take note of where your company is before you do anything, whether this means measuring customer churn, recurring revenue, or some other metric. Once your improvements have been implemented, measure again. If there hasn’t been any movement, your work may not be done.
Remember: process improvement is a continuous effort
Process improvements are a necessary strategy every organization needs to regularly implement in order to remain competitive.
While it may be easier relying on what has long worked for your company, the act of continually analyzing your workflows, identifying any shortcomings, and iterating possible improvements will soon produce results. And once this happens, it will quickly turn into a regular part of doing business.
See how companies like Pearson and IBM use Mural to design systems and workflows that improve teamwork. Or Get started today with a Free Forever account with Mural, and see how your team can create new processes and improve workflow documentation.