Do You Value Process Engineering?

I am a strong believer in business owners and senior leadershipFlowChart teams taking the time to understand, at a detail level, the workflow and processes of the business that they own or run. My foundation for this belief is based on my years as a senior manager and business owner.

I have invested in detail process and workflow reviews and, where necessary, re-engineered process steps to make them correct, optimizing them for efficiency, or eliminating non-value add activity. Upon completion and reasonable execution the business benefited significantly.

Value Proposition
The value of investing in a business process engineering discipline is that it commits the leadership team to operating by design and not by accident or, in some cases, the preferences of individual performers. No matter how small your business is, it is surprising how many basic business functions vary in how they are performed resulting in unexpected cost, confusion, delays, uncertain product or service quality and more significantly, an inconsistent or unpredictable customer experience.

Process Mapping
Process mapping consists of breaking the workflow of your business into basic functions and diagramming the various inputs and outputs of each function as they currently perform (an as-is diagram). In addition, key decision points and decision criteria should be included that affect the course of the workflow processing. The diagrams below illustrate two basic types of graphics that you might use to diagram your workflow.

 Function  Decision

Your goal is to complete an as-is process map of your business workflow. Evaluate the process map and effectively analyze it for improvement opportunities.

Where Do You Start?
Organizations often resist a process engineering project that involves committing the leadership team to a series of meetings to define how they run the business. The resistance is rooted in the assumption that everyone already knows how to do what they do consistently every day and that what they are currently doing is the optimum way of doing things.  However, once the group begins discussing how their business is transacted there are surprising discoveries.

The “process” begins first with contact with the customer (or prospect) and how that turns into a quote, an order, an acknowledgement, etc.  The key to collecting this information effectively is to use a facilitator who can eliminate the influence a senior manager that might have suppressing participation due to the reporting relationship of the participants.  A third party facilitator can neutralize management influence so that the group is engaged and everyone’s perspective is brought into the discussion.

The first session should be no more than two to three hours long. Use a large white board or sheet of paper to diagram the steps in the process.  A white board is preferred as you will erase and add new information a number of times as the clarity of the business process under discussion improves.  Record discoveries in the process that need to be investigated and resolved.

Depending upon the complexity of the business you may focus on just a part of the business or just a few departments.  It is possible the group may not know everything they thought they knew. Leave these areas or legs open in the workflow to be researched and resolved by the next meeting.

Following the meeting, cleanup the diagram and publish it using a product like PowerPoint or Visio.  This becomes the basis for the next session where outstanding issues from the previous meeting are addressed and the process improved with accurate information.

When the diagram process is complete have the group critique it for omissions, redundancy and inconsistencies.  Involve subordinates early in this process to get increased detail feedback which will improve the accuracy of the diagram in describing the workflow and processes of the business.

Discoveries
Common discoveries from this process are:

  • Conflicting Operations/Actions: Look for operations or actions that seem to be working against each other.  These may be processes and workflow steps that have been in place for years and never questioned. They may have been appropriate when first established but, over time, steps in the process changed resulting in a conflict that may not have been noticed. The impact of the conflict might be inconsistent support to other operations, increased risk to quality or cost to produce.
 Conflicting

 

  • Too Many Rejection Points: It is very common to discover steps in the process where information is incomplete at the start of a series of steps resulting in an order being put on hold, requesting further information from a previous (or upstream operations) department or the customer. Necessary process instructions or requirements need to be resolved at the earliest step in the process. Repeated requests for information slows the processing of the order down and increases overhead or direct costs. Some people feel that their value to the company is solving these “rejection” issues and are very defensive when it comes to implementing unnecessary steps and improving the process. If each process step can focus on moving the order to the next process step, rather than on time consuming non-value added effort resolving missing information, then the process will be able to perform at full potential.
 Rejection

 

  • Incorrect or Missing Feedback Loops:  For a process to report that it is operating in control (at full potential) there needs to be feedback at critical points. These feedback loops might record productivity (units produced), efficiency (budget versus actual), alarms such as missing information that prevents the order from being processed further. The rule applied here is “that which is not measured is not managed.”  Feedback loops are control points.  Every process needs appropriate control points to ensure that line and mid-level management know that it is in control.
 Feedback

 

  • Out of Sequence Operations: Business processes can, over time, undergo radical change without the awareness of supervision or management. An out of sequence condition can often occur when new employees are introduced to the process, inadequate training or haste in applying engineering changes that are poorly documented to production. Those working in the process may not recognize the sequencing problem or worse assume management has approved the change.
 Sequence

 

  • Authority/Accountability Conflicts: One condition that can emerge is a conflict between authority and accountability.  The primary reason for this type of conflict is an incorrect alignment with span of control and organization resources.  Consequently departments or functions are held accountable for activities that are under the responsibility of another department or function. A key decision process under the responsibility of a function that is not held accountable can result in random or unpredictable quality and performance. Downstream processes that are held accountable cannot rely upon receiving the product on a timely and consistent basis.
 Authority

 

  • Poorly Defined Job Descriptions: One reason unusual workflow conditions exist is that the duties of the workers involved are not correctly defined in their job descriptions, or worse, job descriptions do not exist or are significantly out of date.  This condition results, as expected, in workers not knowing what to do, inconsistent quality and low productivity.  Training either on the job or in a more formal setting is not provided due to the vagueness or absence of job definition.
 JobDescription

Summary
It is interesting to observe the attitude of business leaders that commit to the purchase and implementation of more complex product systems and services, increasingly integrated business systems, sophisticated supply chain management and elaborate methods and practices reaching and penetrating markets. Despite this major business investment they often overlook or avoid investing in making sure that they (and their leadership team) understand their business processes and workflow to make sure that all operations are competitive and optimized to operate at full potential.

Business processes and workflow should have the same attention as a highly engineered “product”.  The sum total of your business processes and workflow is a reflection of your business model.  Make sure the goals of your business model are represented in your business processes and workflow.

It is critically important for a vendor of your strategically valuable equipment or systems to have appropriate documentation and troubleshooting diagrams to quickly isolate and correct a problem so that it will not happen again. This level of service requires highly effective and responsive processes and efficient workflow.

By this standard can you justify not having a process and workflow roadmap for your organization to not only manage day-to-day correctly but also, when the occasional crisis occurs, to be able to quickly identify the cause and correction to support your customer in a timely and cost effective manner?  Hold yourself to the same standard that you expect of your best vendors.

Value your process engineering activities and your business will operate at or beyond its full potential.

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