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Many process improvement efforts become too focused on achieving a one-time  result and not on building an improvement capability. Often, too much time and effort is spent documenting the current state. The quality of the documentation is less important than the quality of the involvement. Most importantly,  addressing just the bottlenecks in the process often results in the same benefits as addressing the entire process.

Process re-engineering: Create value, not flowcharts

Posted  on 5/23/09

Person holding huge stack of filesThe focus of process improvement programs should be on building improvement capabilities, not on creating new steps

Much of what I preach is to change how we frame or think of things. Many of the mistakes that I've seen with process improvement or reengineering efforts are because businesses are focused on achieving a particular result rather than on building a capability. Often times these initiatives are thought of as events rather than lifestyles. Using my favorite diet analogy, many people who achieve their weight loss goals as part of a diet end up regaining the weight and sometimes gain even more. They set a specific goal, let's say 50 lbs, and then join a support club or specific diet plan or exercise regimen where they follow a strict discipline for a specific period of time. Once they have achieved their goal, they are done! They abandon their restrictive diet and oppressive regimen and then slowly and surely, they return to their old, bad habits.

Many corporate initiatives, especially process reengineering programs, are run with exactly this mindset. We set a goal, we put in a rigorous and often disruptive program to meet that goal, and once we achieve that goal, we celebrate and go back to business as usual.  This mindset is also behind both the "Have cake and eat it, too" and the "Best thing since sliced bread" vicious circles. Returning to our weight loss analogy, a better way to achieve weight goals is to start changing the lifestyle that lead to obesity. Learning about nutrition is better way to start incorporating healthy foods into the daily diet than following a meal plan. Gradually substituting healthy foods that we like for unhealthy ones without depriving ourselves sets the foundation for a lifetime of healthy eating. Similarly, developing an enjoyable and doable exercise regimen, whether it be walking or yoga or bowling, may not have immediate results, but again starts a lifestyle that includes regular exercise.

Less detail, less documentation, and more involvement up front

Most process reengineering initiatives start with documenting the current or "As Is" state.  This step is necessary for everyone on the team to get the same understanding of what is going on and to identify all the problems and root causes. Skimping on this step can result in missing some critical issues. However, often times the team, especially if it is consultants, spend way too much time and money documenting all the details of the current state. The stated purpose of this detailed documentation is to communicate and share with others, but rarely does anyone actually read the documentation of the current, problem state. If the detail and the documentation are not adding new insights or aiding in the understanding, then it should stop at a fairly high level.  Otherwise, it just becomes analysis paralysis.

Many times I have seen a huge amount of process reengineering budget used up in developing detailed current state documentation that no one ever looks at again. Plus, the knowledge and the insights gained are limited to the team. This would be a good time to start creating in-house review and improvement teams and getting everyone up to speed on the process and its problems. Usually, communication rollouts don't happen until the new process is created, but this doesn't allow for input or involvement and people end up feeling like this is being done to them. Lack of involvement is a big cause for lack of buy-in later.

Start with the bottlenecks, ignore optimization

Typically, the BPR (business process reengineering) team will now start creating new processes and work hard to come up with an optimized solution. Sometimes this can be a daunting task. There are many ways to sequence tasks and it is difficult for the human mind to develop an optimized scenario. The good news is that trying to create an optimum solution (i.e. the perfect answer) is often a waste of time. Keeping in mind Pareto's law, you can achieve most of the benefits you want by just improving the biggest problem areas or the bottlenecks. Sometimes all your process improvement efforts are complete waste of time because of a bottleneck.

A few years ago, I headed a team to improve global new product launches and decrease the time-to-market. As part of this effort, I visited some of our larger country markets and discovered that one country had been diligently working on decreasing their development and launch time. However, although they had streamlined their own R&D, Marketing, and Sales processes, they could not realize any substantial reductions in time-to-market. They were dependent in two instances on global organizations who had long lead times and were creating bottlenecks. Although their in-country initiative had streamlined their own work flow, it did not result in the benefit of shortened launch times. In my team's investigation, it turned out that these were bottlenecks for all the country markets. Rather than launching process improvement initiatives in all the countries, we simply worked with these two organizations to improve turnaround times. It turned out that the global organizations were not getting all the information they needed to perform their jobs. Once we clarified the information needed and determined responsibilities, we substantially reduced these bottlenecks and decreased time-to-market, all with hardly any process flowcharts!

Although the original charter for the team was to reengineer the global and in-market processes, the team felt it would rather direct its effort toward removing the third bottleneck, the world-wide review and approval processes. The team worked on streamlining and clarifying this and then finding an automated work-flow solution. The team also worked with country leads and together they set up quarterly conference calls to share best practices and address common issues. Each country had already addressed particular pieces of the NPL (new product launch) process and sharing their solutions on a regular basis was determined to be a better use of their time than trying to reengineer everything all at once. Plus, they had products to get out the door! The executive sponsor laughed all the way to his update meeting because while the other executive teams had lots of process documentation to show for their work, he had already achieved real results and his people were sharing and communicating improvement ideas globally on a regular basis. 

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Featured Neologisms

Undue diligence   –
the endless process of collecting more information in order to avoid making a decision
Team vynamics   -
Group behavior wherein individuals at a meeting vie for dominance