Business Process Excellence – Where to Start?


So your organization has decided to embark on a journey towards Process Excellence. Perhaps you are contemplating a new ERP or other enterprise software solution. Or maybe you are trying to position yourself for a merger. Or maybe your business processes are a mess and you simply need to end the insanity. In either case, congratulations on making the decision to embark on a process improvement path. It will lead you into the enviable business environment of continuous improvement. Now what?

It is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of work required to bring about the changes you need.  Should you start with your order to cash processes or focus on operations? Do you need to close your financials sooner in the month or do you focus on supply chain? Are your customers getting the service they need? Are you closing sales efficiently?  Deciding on where to start may be the most difficult decision of all on your process improvement journey.

Here are four considerations when answering the question, Where to start?:

1.  Identify the primary reason for the journey

What is the business reason that you need a process improvement program in place? Are you cash constrained? If you need to increase profits will you focus on cost improvement, increased revenues, or better mix? Do you need faster speed to market? Are you plagued with equipment downtime, poor scheduling practices, or ineffective project management? Do you simply need to document your processes in preparation for ERP?

Understanding the primary drivers give you clarity on the areas for immediate focus. For example, one client I worked with intentionally downplayed workplace organization, which is widely considered foundational to any continuous improvement initiative, because their primary pain point was equipment reliability. So they focused on total productive maintenance first. Once their equipment reliability sustainably improved, they were able to shift focus back to the basics of workplace organization. Addressing your key pain points with your process excellence initiative maximizes your chances of making real gains for your business.

2.  The name of the game: sustained, incremental improvements

Process excellence practitioners understand that the quickest way to process transformation is to sustain smaller incremental gains rather than a ‘big bang’ approach. But this philosophy is counter-intuitive to most people, especially those who are project-focused or who demand results quickly. Align your efforts on smaller – yet meaningful – improvements that can be implemented quickly, but which build upon each other to achieve the desired future state of your critical processes identified in step 1. The key here is to ensure that each gain is sustainable and is cemented in the organization’s culture. It may seem slower to implement, but your organization is more likely to achieve the gains more quickly, adjust better to a new way of thinking, and, most importantly, sustain the improvement gains achieved.

3.  Don’t underestimate the organizational change effort required

Your organization didn’t wake up and decide one day to build sloppy, ineffective processes. Processes evolved over time by people trying to do the right thing. Your business process improvement initiative can easily be viewed by your team as criticisms of their abilities and dedication to your organization. It is important to build the organizational change mechanisms into your initiative to ensure that your early adopters understand and can help lead the changes you wish to see.  Understanding where your culture is today coupled with comprehensive communications and a training program focused on ‘learning by doing’ are foundational to organizational change programs. Organizational change management (OCM) is a specialized skill. More often than not, it is worth the investment to work with an outside company to help you craft your OCM strategy.

4.  Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day

Business process improvement journeys are more than increasing flow; they change your organization’s culture.  And organization culture change can take years – and a lot of work – to achieve. Quick, sustained, meaningful wins and a strong OCM strategy will help maintain the motivation but cannot compensate for flagging support from the organization’s leadership. Make sure your senior leadership is fully committed to making this change and has full understanding that this is not the ‘program du jour’ but a key strategy to your organization’s success. Beware of future initiatives which threaten to take away focus from your process improvement journey.

Embracing process excellence does not need to be a daunting endeavor. Focus your efforts on a few key areas, make incremental and sustained improvements to these areas, manage change, and maintain dedication to continuous improvement, and you will maximize your chances of a successful business process transformation.