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Business Process Design Primer
Business processes save time and increase quality
Much of business operations is repetitive and should be executable without undue stress or mistakes.
A beautiful business process can help take the fire-fighting out of daily work and manage foreseeable emergencies. It essentially documents what need to happen when and how in order to deliver consistent, quality outcomes. Processes capture and leverage what your organisation learns!
A business process can be thought of as a production line. It can involve different people, who may work for different companies or in different locations, and different technological systems or tools.
Processes can be very complex with multiple branching paths, or as simple as a single linear path.
Examples of business processes
- Daily backup process of all PCs in your office.
- Monthly archival and storage of old files.
- Processing a mail, phone or internet order.
- Keeping the shelves stocked with inventory by conducting regular stock checks and sending out orders to supplies on time.
- Preparing an annual tax return; including collating all the necessary paperwork.
The dynamic balance between efficiency and control
A good process is a balance of empirical efficiency and the empowerment of the people involved.
Efficiency is important because that is the point of having a process.
Empowerment is important because processes inevitably have a human component. And a human works significantly better when they feel in control of their tools, safe in their environment, and have some say in choosing and creating these two aspects.
Just because a process can be made supremely efficient does not mean it should be. It can be worthwhile keeping portions of the process manual. Such manual handling can create a great deal of comfort especially during a transition phase where people are still learning to trust the process. Manual steps can also work as quality checkpoints precisely because a person is needed to push the button.
Sacrificing a bit of efficiency to make people comfortable can have long term payoffs. When you have buy-in from people, they are quicker to forgive and accommodate any shortcomings. It can also reduce your change management costs.
Broad steps to design a business process
- Work out what you need the process to achieve. Go out there, meet with, get to know, and consult everyone who will be affected by the process. I cannot emphasise the importance of people engagement. It can create valuable buy-in, elicit new ideas and generate goodwill. Don’t just dump a completed process, created without consultation, and “make” them use it.
- Break it down into discrete sub-processes, each of which takes input from the preceding one and provides output to the subsequent one. Breaking processes into smaller chunks makes everything much easier to design, implement, test and update/replace.
- Identify those sub-processes that are the most simplistically and uniformly repetitive. These tend to be the ones best suited to automation. Make the input, processing and output transparent and obvious to the people involved.
- Repeat step 2 as you start working with the more complex sub-processes with multiple inputs and more convoluted operations. These may be handled by people, or a combination of people and technology.
- Identify the key decision and check points between the sub-processes. People usually should be involved at these points. Provide sufficient controls – “OK”, “Stop”, “Change” or “More Information”. It may even be good to create new decision checkpoints to give a greater sense of control to the people; so they can be reassured that the process is working as expected.
- Unless your process is super simple, it is wise to implement smaller sub-processes gradually. Test and tweak! Solicit and listen to feedback from the people involved. And know that some changes to the design will be inevitable.
What makes a well-designed business process?
Works with, and supports people - acknowledges, accommodates (and even leverages) cultural and other human foibles. Works for people – actively helps them get their work done, supports business goals, and not get in the way. Wouldn’t you rather your people use their creativity to solve real problems rather than subverting poorly designed rigid processes?
Recognises prior experience - makes sense to the people using it in the context it will be deployed in; because it uses their language, and responds to them in ways they can reasonably expect given their roles. Recognising prior experience is both good usability design and demonstrating respect for the users.
Creates a feeling of control - well-designed user controls and clear feedback at all times to minimise users feeling lost or helpless. The process should also be Open to tweaking and finetuning - especially where users have the means to make suggestions or actual changes in response to changes to their work. Don’t forget to reinforce accomplishments! All good managers know how far a “Well Done!” can go. The process should provide positive feedback mechanism to signal successful completion of tasks.
Echoes and reinforces the business’ values - a process is in effect the behaviour of a business. And as such should be aligned with its brand personality and promises. You will be judged by your actions!
Resilience against variation - we cannot control all change, but we can (to an extent) anticipate what could go wrong, and how the process could reasonably accommodate or ameliorate these changes.
Work with and supports people
- Do you know who will be affected by the new process?
- How can the process help them with their work?
- What are the specific extra-painful problems that the process could address?
- What are they most concerned about with a new process?
- What would be really nice for the process to do for them?
Recognises prior experience
- What other systems and processes must the process recognise or integrate with?
- What special words, phrases and concepts are in active use?
- What is the level of knowledge and experience of the people involved?
- What do your people already know? How will you reinforce this strength to them?
- What will they need to learn? How can you entice them to learn this?
Creates a feeling of control
- How will the process provide information and in-context help? Where in the process would these need to be to make the maximum impact?
- How will the system provide helpful and supportive error or warning messages? When are the right moments to present these?
- How will the system provide positive acknowledgements feedback? When are the right moments to present these?
- How will people direct the process to complete the anticipated tasks?
- When something unexpected happens, how will people maintain control over the process?
- Can the process remove control from people? At which points? Why?
- Where are the quality checkpoints? How are people involved?
- Which part of the process are likely to benefit from, or require, on-the-job finetuning? How can you enable this?
- How will someone report major problems or make suggestions for significant changes? What feedback will they get so they know they have been heard?
Echoes and reinforces the business’ values
- How well does this process align with your business’ values, brand personality, and marketing promises?
- Are you saying one thing and doing something else?
- How can the process actively reinforce your key branding and marketing messages?
- If the process were an employee, how will they treat your customers? What will they be like to engage with?
- If the process were an employee, how will they treat your people? What will they be like to work with?
Resilience against variation
- What could go wrong?
- What is likely to change over time?
- Can the process automatically accommodate some of the things that could go wrong? How?
- What will people need to learn or change to reduce errors and variations going into the process?
- How can the process support experienced responses, in accordance with policies and best practices, to problems?
- How can the process/sub-processes be fixed, updated or changed with minimal impact to your business?
The single most important thing you can do
Connect, consult, and involve your people!
And yes, this can be challenging. And no, you really can’t not do this and still have a successful process. You may even discover that a new process is not needed.
Eicolab JETpapers (Just Enough Theory) are condensed, technical knowledge for busy business people who want to make better-informed decisions, work more effectively with experts, and implement practical improvements. http://eicolab.com.au/
© 2014 Zern Liew