Process Improvement: Getting the Basics Right

The Thesis of the Article

Getting the basics of process right is the foremost requirement for its improvement. Improvisations are not possible in vaguely-defined ways of working which is why SOPs are so important. And if despite having SOPs, procedures are not being followed and convenient habits take over, it shall slowly push us back to square one. Efforts have to be made to ensure process compliance. Supervisory responsibilities can play a big role here. And once those processes become the norm it gives rise to the need to keep a check on their relevance and efficacy through periodical audits. Automation can significantly speed up processes and help in ensuring process compliance.

Historically, the word process comes from its Latin origin – meaning procedure which further extends to mean to proceed. In stricter terms, a process is what takes us from input to output. A procedure is a defined way of doing something. In a more contemporary sense, the process is a broader term than the procedure and we should not use these terms interchangeably.

Wherever, to accomplish a task or objective, many smaller and individual tasks are involved which needs to be executed in an ordered sequence, we can say that a process is involved over there. Procession application can be seen everywhere. How raw materials (input) are transformed into finished or semi-finished goods (output) is a process of manufacturing. Even agriculture is a process.

Similarly in business, a process is required where achieving an objective involves multiple tasks to be carried out in a planned sequence. If there’s a vacancy due to resignation, the routine objective then would be to fill up that position. Now fulfilling that objective will involve a series of activities – placing a job advert, screening applications, interviews, salary negotiations, completing the joining formalities, and induction. We can plan that in advance (the recruitment process). It is as simple as that. It will be helpful not just for temporary fulfilments but also in carrying out the bigger recruitment projects.

The moment we shift our perspective to the external environment, business processes assume even higher significance. Even with the cool technologies and all, processes are indispensable. If a customer happens to come in with a product issue, your customer support staff must be conversant with the grievance handling procedure and not found dilly-dallying around making convenient excuses to the customer or appearing careless. The right procedure could include making the customer feel comfortable with the situation, checking the purchase bill, a preliminary physical inspection of the product, checking the warranty period or terms of service, etc. It is strange but most businesses care not to delve into such details of service which can be easily made a part of their CRM processes.

Choosing SOP

The first step for process improvement is having the right process in the first place.SOP is the way to begin with.SOP or Standard Operating Procedure is a set of a planned sequence of defined tasks and activities required for carrying out a particular operation or process towards achieving a goal or an objective.SOP is a more technical name for a procedure. It defines every step in terms of who, what, where, when and how. It eliminates guesswork and serves as an operational roadmap for employees. It makes supervision, monitoring, and reporting easier. A business process may have multiple operations and for each operation or activity, there could be an SOP. If recruitment is treated as a process, one of the operations/activities is screening the job applications. There could be an SOP for that activity. For example, if a company is strictly specific about the qualification criteria, the same needs to be one of the first parameters of screening. There is no use of spending further time on applications that do not meet one of the foremost and essential criteria. Similarly, all the parameters could be placed in the SOP in a prioritized sequence.

Improvisations are often discovered traversing on defined and known patterns of working (SOPs). In an undefined or vaguely-defined working environment, convenient habits begin to take over the operational standards.

Ensure Process Compliance

You can have the best processes but they would not be effective as much if not followed diligently. Without schooling around about it, adherence to procedures and being process-oriented is something that needs to be encouraged in organizational cultures.

Automation and a supervisory-level monitoring and reporting mechanism could be the two best shots at ensuring routine process compliance. In the long run, initiatives like giving weight age to process expertise in promotional exams and interviews, a periodical feedback mechanism, having process compliance as a PMS criteria, etc. could go a long way in building a process-oriented organization.

Use of Automation Tools

Automation could not only speed up business processes but also make the latter more accurate and capable of handling more data. To be able to make a process shorter, more reliable, and capable of handling more volume is a significant process improvement. The shorter a process cycle gets, the quicker we get the output. The derived time benefit can be further used. If a restaurant can now prepare its pizzas 5 minutes quicker because of automation, this acquired value can be passed on to the customers. With improved reliability of a process, the confidence over the quality of the output it generates also stands enhanced. In the aforesaid application-screening example, even a simple software application can instantly and accurately filter out the irrelevant applications which, if done manually, might leave scope for human error.

Process Audits

A process audit may lead to nothing and simply tell you that your processes are just fine. That’s a big compliment equivalent to running an auto recheck on your calculator and finding that you were right. Process audits need to be rigorous; you will be auditing something your business operations would be running through in the next three or six months or more depending upon your audit interval. The maxim of a process audit should be to question the process and the procedures involved, be carried out by subject experts and experienced professionals, and preferably by teams external to the processes being audited.

In the aforesaid application-screening example, an HR process audit should involve asking:

  • Is there a defined screening procedure? Is it always followed?
  • Who is the process owner?
  • Where are the screening criteria sourced from?
  • How are the screening criteria prioritized?
  • How is the screening task carried out?
  • The average time taken to screen an application
  • What is the output from this task? And so on.

Any externally-influenced call for a process change would be supernova enough for a correction course. But for stability, long-term improvements and maturity, processes would need time and experience. No company ever started with the perfect processes or came up with big improvements over a day or two. Get the basics right with SOP, automation, audits, and compliance, and keep an eye for the necessary tweaks here and there and let the things roll.

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