Inefficient processes could be limiting your organization's growth.
High-achieving organizations know this instinctively. Their efforts to improve operational efficiency result in:
All of these are reasons why everyone at ClearPoint is just a little bit obsessed with internal process improvement, in addition to strategy execution. In fact, our own company’s Balanced Scorecard lists “operational excellence” as a corporate-level objective; many department-level objectives include finding ways to better organize and automate processes.
To help you get started, we’ve outlined below the essential steps for how to improve a process at work; they are what we do in our own office for process improvement. You’ll also see how ClearPoint’s software can be useful in identifying and implementing process changes every step of the way. (If you’re a local government interested in process improvement, read this article to learn more about how one city tackled the job.)
There are processes associated with everything your organization does, both externally and internally. Which one to attack first? Think about the following as you're considering your processes and evaluating the need for improvement:
Find a way to prioritize the processes you’ve identified. For instance, would an improvement of one particular process directly help your organization reach its current objectives? Or perhaps improving a process that’s used daily would be more impactful than one used less frequently. A gap analysis can also help identify processes ripe for improvement.
As an example, a process we’ve identified at ClearPoint as a good candidate for improvement is the RFP (request for proposal) process. RFPs are essential to our company’s future growth, but it takes us a long time to pull them together, especially if we need to create more than one at a time. Using our performance management software to manage the improvement process, we can create an initiative for “RFP process improvement” and link it to the related department and corporate objectives.
Name a specific individual (or individuals) who will be responsible for driving the change effort. Someone who is involved on the ground level with the process is a good candidate for the job because they’re more likely to have useful insights. While multiple people may be involved in analyzing the process and determining what and how things should change, holding one person accountable for overseeing it all will help ensure continuous action. This will also be the person others will turn to with questions about the process once the change has been made.
In ClearPoint, we assign an “owner” to this initiative, as well as “collaborators” who will be working on the project, too.
To ensure the process is well-understood, document how it currently works. (If the process is already documented, test it to make sure those are still the steps you take.)
Be sure to include:
When it’s complete, test your written description to make sure you haven’t missed anything and that it accurately describes the process flow. You can track this information in ClearPoint in custom fields, or attach a document that outlines the step-by-step process so it’s easy for the whole team to find what they need.
Just doing the previous steps will improve communication and quality control within your organization. But to produce more meaningful results, you need to identify what’s holding your process back. Do an after-action review to assess its performance. How has the process been going? What’s going well or not? How can you improve it? Maybe one person’s task is overly time-consuming or a step is unclear, constantly prompting questions. Maybe the process is too dependent on other processes or people.
When identifying roadblocks, it helps to have data associated with the process for analysis. Tracking data points like time, output, and ROI will help you figure out if the improvements you make are effective. The amount of data you need depends; some processes (like our RFP process) might only require a month or so of data, but embarking on an overhaul of a citywide passport request process, for instance, would benefit from a year’s worth of data.
ClearPoint offers an excellent way to track data for the purpose of making work process improvements. You can use it to collect and house data surrounding the process, before, during, and after the change. ClearPoint is capable of automatically pulling in data from multiple systems so that it’s readily accessible, all in one place, anytime you need it.
Once you’ve identified what’s holding you back, work to remove those inefficiencies. Gather a group together to brainstorm better ways to approach troublesome spots. Consider whether building a template would help. Some things you’ll never be able to change, but strive to remove as many bottlenecks as possible.
Technology—in particular, automation tools—can often help solve efficiency problems. Automation may already be embedded in the tools you use regularly, you just might not be taking advantage of it. So look closely at the tools you’re using and see how you can use them better; or, if the situation warrants it, consider making a bigger investment into a software tool that includes automation and would be helpful in eliminating unnecessary manual work for your team.
What goals are you aiming for specifically? Set realistic and measurable milestones so you can measure progress. For our RFP process, ultimately we want to decrease the amount of time it takes to prepare each response. Our first steps to get there are to decrease the number of sources we need to reference to find information, and improve efficiency in our review process.
Document and test the new process. How does it work now? Are any parts of it unclear? As well as testing it yourself, have one or more people unfamiliar with the process test it. (Your familiarity can cloud your judgement.) Take your time with the testing phase to make sure your process catches all the possible exceptions and produces consistent results.
Collect and analyze the data associated with the new process to see if it shows improvement. In our RFP example, we use ClearPoint to track start and end dates for the process, and gather quantitative data around our milestones. We also encourage collaborators to add qualitative data, commenting on how it’s going and propose new ideas if needed, etc. It’s rare to nail a process change with the first iteration, so be prepared to do some tweaking. Compare the performance of your new process against the goals you set in the previous step to know when your work is done.
When your process is formalized, document and share it with the team. But just because you’ve reached the end of these process improvement steps doesn’t mean you should stop looking for ways to improve further! Monitor its ongoing performance and continue to refine as you hear more feedback from team members. Over time, there may also be changes surrounding the process—like a software update, for example—that might affect the overall flow, and require additional fine-tuning. If you’re using ClearPoint, you’ll be able to continue gathering data and feedback, which will be easily accessible anytime for future analysis.
All the benefits we mentioned at the beginning of this article don’t spring automatically from one process change effort—they happen when organizations make process improvement a significant part of their culture.
Leaders should encourage employees to think about and suggest process improvements regularly, as well as encourage collaboration across departments, so opportunities are more easily identified and discussed. Assigning owners to certain processes is also helpful, not just in the context of these process improvement steps but for the long term, so they can be on the lookout for potential opportunities continuously. When change becomes a mindset rather than a singular event, your organization will be well-prepared for growth—and anything the future throws at it.
Ted is a Founder and Managing Partner of ClearPoint Strategy and leads the sales and marketing teams.