It amazes me how many medium to large-sized organisations are still communicating fragments of policies and processes to employees through one-time emails. In one nation-wide organisation, employees were informed of a new purchase authorisation policy via email. In another multi-national, a manager conveyed new data entry procedures the same way. I am not talking here about notification of changed policies and procedures. Email may be a good medium for mass communication of such changes. I am talking here about relaying important policies and procedures to employees and ensuring that they understand and act on them.
Imagine these employees two weeks down the track. "Now how does that new procedure go? Oh yes! I think it was in an email I got last month. Now where did I file that email? Or did I delete it?" In most cases, the procedure is long forgotten or a fruitless or time-wasting search is begun to locate what should by then be common knowledge and practice.
Process clarity is one of the three key foci in effective organisational design, along with people and technology. Yet how many organisations are struggling with poorly defined and communicated processes. How an invoice is processed, customer complaint handled or engineering drawing approved in many organisations depends more on who does it and what day of the week it was done on rather than on sound business reasoning. Where process and role clarity is lacking, personal idiosyncrasies and political manoeuvring take over.
In this environment, there is little point in paying above market salaries to attract the best talent. High-performers will simply leave the organisation when they tire of beating their head against a brick wall. The solution is to conscript these new supercharged recruits into working with your people to clarify, define and agree the way things should be done. Achieving this synergy between people and processes is a key lever in improving organisational capability.
Research indicates that less than 20 percent of product defects and service problems are due to non-random factors such as malicious employees, machine breakdown and poor raw materials. The other 80 percent or more of problems are due to systemic deficiencies with processes. Defining and mapping your business processes is simple to do, involves no costly capital expenditure and pays huge dividends in business efficiency and employee motivation. If you are thinking about mapping your processes, here are ten key pointers to keep in mind.
Involve employees who actually do the work in the mapping
Employees who do the work are in the best position to know the detailed steps in each process, the common roadblocks and bottlenecks and the key contacts in the organisation to get things done. Our workers are our greatest resource, however, many organisations do not tap in to the enormous wealth of experience that walks through their doors each morning and walk out again each night. Involve your employees up front by inviting them to join process-mapping teams. Keep managers and supervisors out of the process-mapping sessions, as they have a tendency to dominate the sessions with their own "expertise".
Getting employees to map their processes is a powerful morale booster. Apart from mutual goal-setting, there is no more powerful method that I know of for engaging the hearts and minds of employees. I have seen employees' eyes light up during briefing sessions in which I offered them the opportunity to identify and remove the roadblocks to them doing a great job. Most employees are tired of the day-to-day fire fighting that comes with many jobs. At one briefing session, employees were so enthused that they all volunteered to join the team!
Set up one process-mapping team per work area, with no more than ten employees per team. Look for a team leader with good interpersonal and organising skills and that has the respect of the other team members. The team leader's first task is to get the team members to brainstorm all the activities they perform and then to group them into separate processes. The following sessions will then see one process mapped per session. If you don't have a lot of time to spare, teams can meet weekly. Each process should take no longer than two hours to map.
Identify process start and end activities
For each process, clearly identify the start and end. If the team neglects this important step at the start of each mapping session, in the team's enthusiasm, extra activities will quickly creep into the picture until the process becomes unmanageable. Think of one activity that triggers the process, such as an invoice appearing in an intray. This is the start. Then think of the last activity performed. It may be, for example, posting an item to the General Ledger.
Identify process objective and inputs and outputs
This is where work starts to take on new meaning for employees. The team leader should ask employees why each process is performed and what are the expected results of each process. Not only does this help to focus attention on removing non-value add activities, but it also gives employees a sense of purpose in their working life. Instead of work being a disconnected set of meaningless activities, employees begin to appreciate that everything they do helps to achieve a bigger goal. So, I no longer just remove boxes from one shelf and put them on another. I am maximising the use of warehouse space and reducing pick times so that we can deliver widgets to our customers faster and cheaper.
Asking the teams to identify the inputs to the process and the expected outputs will serve to clarify what the process needs before it can begin and what customers of the next process will get before they can begin. For example, agreeing that widget assembly cannot begin until the joining screws are supplied will eliminate a lot of idle work in progress.
Identify Customer and Supplier requirements
Next, each team needs to work out who the suppliers and customers of the process are. This step is critical as it identifies who the team needs to work with collaboratively to maximise business results. If a process does not have a customer, then eliminate it as it serves no one's purpose. Every employee working in a process should serve either an internal customer or an external customer or both. The team will then ask their customers what it is they want from the process, in terms of quality, turn around time and so on.
Conversely, the team needs to clarify what it is they need of their suppliers, both internal and external, to perform their process effectively and efficiently. A purchasing team may require other departments (suppliers) to fill in all fields of the Purchase Order prior to submission. The customers of the purchasing team (other departments) may require orders to be fulfilled within two days unless placed on backorder. As in this case, suppliers of the process can also be customers.
Seeing how their own local processes fit into the wider organisational processes and goals allow employees to see the "big picture". For many, this is incredibly empowering and motivating. Through engaging customers and suppliers and taking responsibility for the complete process, employees, supervisors and managers will all start singing from the same hymn sheet.
Identify a Process Owner for each process
For each process, specify one Process Owner. Identifying one person who is responsible for the process end to end is critical to ensuring process efficiency. There is no more effective way that I know to dismantle quickly and effectively the silo walls that get built separating departments. Where processes flow through departments, as all major processes do, the Process Owner will need to have sufficient authority and credibility to make decisions spanning these departments.
Manage the level of detail
The magic of process maps lay in their seemingly simple visual presentation of complex ideas. One picture can tell a thousand words. Each process map should take up no more than one page, with its definition taking up just one other. If a map takes up more than one page, identify sub-processes within each process and show each sub-process on a separate page. Use clear referencing to link each sub-process with its associated macro process. I have seen process maps that flow on page after page after page. These do little more than confuse employees. At the operational level, for each activity in which you need to convey detailed information, have your employees or subject matter experts write clear and logical step-by-step work instructions. Once again, use unambiguous referencing to link the work instruction to its associated process.
Do not try to document everything that goes on in your organisation. Decide on the priority processes and concentrate on these. Processes from which you can gain quick wins are those that interface with external customers and suppliers and those that are currently providing you with your biggest headaches.
Use standardised mapping conventions
What you want is for anyone in the organisation to be able to pick up a process map and understand instantly what it is they are seeing. Standardise on mapping conventions and formatting of the maps. Mapping symbols, flow direction, page layout, fonts, titling and so on should be the same from one map to another. Keep the number of flow chart symbols to a minimum. You should need no more than six to keep the maps easy to read.
Get agreement on the process
The most beautifully documented process will mean naught if there is little commitment from the major actors to follow them. Crunch time will come in those tough times of impending deadlines and snappy stakeholders. I find what works well is getting formal sign-off from the process-mapping team leader, the Process Owner and the managers of the interfacing processes (both supplier and customer). If the interfacing processes are being mapped as well, then also get sign-off from their process-mapping team leaders. This may seem overkill and you may get some resistance, however, getting formal agreement now will save you much heartache later when people start to come up with excuses as to why the seemingly agreed process does not apply in this or that case.
Document the process
The most important thing that team leaders can do after the team agrees on the process definition and steps is to write it down. I remember working with one nation-wide distribution business where at the end of a mapping session with a group of managers, two of the managers came to me and said that this was the best thing since sliced bread. You see, they had held meetings before to thrash out and decide process flows and responsibilities, but nobody wrote down what they agreed. Two weeks after the meetings, these managers lamented, nobody could remember what they had agreed.
Do not fall into the trap of writing down the process as the team brainstorms. During the next two hours there will be many changes to the flow. Writing it down will only lead to a mess as process steps are added, others removed and other moved forward or backward. What works extremely well is brainstorming all the process activities first, writing each process step on a Post-it note and then having a team member place the Post-it notes in order on flipchart paper. The next hour or so is then devoted to arguing about the activities and order of steps. Post-it notes can easily be moved around during this debating process. Only when there is full agreement are the lines and arrows drawn in to signify the process flows. I have seen managers trying to shortcut the process waste a good two hours writing their processes on a white-board and then having to start again when they could no longer understand their "spaghetti drawing".
The documents must now be made easily accessible to all who need them. Have the documents centrally managed and well indexed. If employees have access to computers, make the documents available on-line. You want everyone working on the latest version of each document, so practice strict version control. If you're a small to medium-sized organisation, you don't need expensive dedicated document management software. An electronic spreadsheet or simple database will suffice. As with many things in organisations, its not the technology that is limiting business effectiveness; its the commitment to following practices rigorously. By the way, don't forget to document your document control process.
Convey management commitment and train your teams
Although mapping business processes will not cost you much in capital expenditure, it is not for the faint-hearted. The management team will need to show unswerving and visible commitment to the project. Teams will loose faith and energy quickly if management support is piecemeal or grudgingly given. Team leaders will need time management and organising skills, along with interpersonal skills and analytical thinking. Each team will also need a mix of skills; people who can think creatively, bond the team and follow through on tasks, to name just a few. Where these skills are lacking, they will need to be learned. However, these teams have proved to be a fertile ground for developing the next line of leaders.
Use as a basis for further improvement
Business Process Reengineering was a big buzzword in the 80s and 90s. A key objective of reengineering efforts was often technological implementations with a consequent radical downsizing. The severe dampening of employee morale as a result is well known. What is not so well recognised is the employee enthusiasm and business improvements that may be gained by many organisations in engineering their processes for the first time.
There is a lot to be gained just in mapping initially your core processes. Every team that I have worked with have uncovered many areas for improvement. One team reduced dramatically the incidence of lost inventory items whilst another improved substantially the pass rate of electronic circuit modules.
Once the mapping is completed, they then serve as excellent induction and training resources. However, the fun does not stop there. The process maps and work instructions can now serve as the agreed baseline for ongoing process improvement. Through continuing process improvement teams, your employees will remain emotionally engaged with the organisation and motivated to continue working towards a common organisational goal.
Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd; a management consulting firm specializing in people and process capability. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, process consultant and trainer for organizations large and small.
He is also the author of five books on training and change management and is the creator of various training tools and templates. Leslie is a member of the Australian Institute of Management and the Quality Society of Australasia. He is also a member of the Divisional Council of the Victorian Division of the Australian Institute of Training and Development (AITD). Leslie may be contacted by email at email@example.com
Find out more about involving employees in your improvement projects. Check out Leslie's resource kit, Managing Change in the Workplace. This comprehensive guide is intended for everyone expected to lead, manage and implement change. Visit the Managing Change in the Workplace information portal to find out how to download the free Introductory Chapter and start using this practical change management guide and workbook today.