Process improvement basics – Know the current state first!

by 1vet2another

Defining the current state is one of the most valuable lessons to learn in any business environment.  Whether you are going into a new role, starting a project, or trying to improve a process, it is important to define and map the current state.  A clear picture of the present also allows us to ask the right questions and avoid solving the wrong problems.  The future can be scary and full of uncertainties.  Before venturing into the unknown, we need a clear understanding of the current state.

To map the current state, Microsoft Visio is a great user-friendly tool that quickly allows you to see the whole picture (see a basic guide here).  Both micro and macro level pictures of the process are necessary here.  We need to be able to zoom in and out for a good understanding of the current situation.

This exercise will also help identify what is working well, and what areas are pain points that need improvement.   One key to process improvement is utilizing the ideas and creativity of others.  You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, try to accomplish this on your own. It is your job to gather the thoughts and creativity of everyone involved in the process and guide them towards a sustainable future state.

8 quick tips to start improving a process…

1. Study up, briefly

Collect all the materials and documents you can find on the current process.  Read and learn about the process as much as possible.  You won’t get all the answers doing this, but it will get you started in the right direction. You don’t have to spend too much time doing this.  The main goal of this step is to become familiar with the process before jumping in.  If you already are familiar with it, skip this step!

2. Get away from your desk and talk to people!!!!

Meet the people involved.  You are now a detective and your role is to observe the process and start asking questions.  Talk to some of the key players involved and record all the steps involved. Ask them to explain the process.  Ask them to point you to others that may provide information regarding the process.  Ask if there is any more documentation that can help (keep studying).

At this point, your job is putting pieces of the puzzle together.   Ask about what works.  Ask about what doesn’t work.  Any new information helps.  If they feel like offering suggestions, let them do it.  Employees that are part of the process usually know it best. They always have creative ideas and solutions, but much of that will go unused if nobody asks.   The greatest waste in any business is unused creativity of the people involved in the process.

3. Observe the process in its natural environment

Time for you to be a fly on the wall.  Just watch and learn the process in action.  By this point, people told you what they believed the process to be.  Remember this….people don’t always do what they say!  Shocking right?  You will likely notice parts of the process that they either forgot to mention or didn’t realize was there in the first place.   Document what you see.

4. Create an initial rough outline of the process.

By this point you have studied, investigated, and observed the process.  Don’t wait too long to start mapping the process with what you know so far.  Use Visio.  Get a high level, simple process going.  For me, getting something created opens up new ideas and strategies for designing the map.  Get a draft going and continuously build and improve.  As you learn more about the process and put more thought into it, you will keep finding new and better ways of mapping the process.  Google different Visio map images for some initial guidance if you need it.

5. Don’t wait too long to get others involved.

Put the initial map in front of the same key players you talked to and see if it makes sense.   You will spark more conversation and learn new insights to continue refining the map.  You want to make sure the map accurately represents the current process.  The important part here is to capture the real process, not the process that is described.

Present the completed current state to your team.  Everyone needs to be on the same page and understand the current process.  Use the insights regarding pain points and issues to highlight some of steps in the process that have potential for improvement.  No need to create a future state yet, use the current state with highlight areas and go back to the key players for their input.  Explore some of their thoughts and recommendations for improvement in more detail.  The more information the better.

6. Start drafting the future state

Use the information gathered and start drafting a few different future state options.  Explore the feasibility with the key players and any additional parties that would be affected by the future process.  Start narrowing down one or two top candidates and add more detail to the map.  This would be a good time to do a few test runs in real life and prove the process improvements.  Think of it as testing your process prototype.

7. Keep it simple stupid

There are many different design styles to choose from, for me, I stick with the basics.  Like Excel, try not to throw too many colors into the mix.  It just confuses things.  It may help to use swim lanes if your process journeys across many different phases, teams, departments, sectors, etc.   Google some Visio swim lane images for examples of the layout.  Assuming you didn’t change every part of the process, make it obvious where the change is and highlight the difference between the current and future states. Make it clear what steps remain unchanged as well.

8. Get everyone on the same page!!!!!!!!

All parties affected by the change must be on the same page when a future state is chosen and implemented.  Everyone must understand and sign-off on the future state.  This is the most critical step, or else everything we did prior was just a fun exercise that will not add any value.  With your team, create an implementation plan to begin the new future state and sustain it over time.  Don’t forget to monitor the process after implementation to ensure progress is made.

Learning the basics of Visio is important to make clear, simple, and actionable process maps.  This isn’t something that is commonly taught in college, but it can be a very valuable tool in business if used correctly.

Simple is key.  It is easy to keep building the maps and making it more and more complicated.  Eventually, it becomes impossible to read, follow, and becomes useless.  Not to mention, the more detailed it gets, the harder it is to keep it updated and accurate with continuous changes in processes over time. 

My recommendation is to go as detailed as you want for short term maps that won’t need to be used over and over.  For long term maps that become a teaching tool, keep it extremely high level and simple to allow for flexibility in the details within the process.

Good luck everyone!

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