Most mistakes and errors in business are the end result of not having clearly defined procedures for common tasks. Here are 10 steps for creating procedures and systems that will make your business more successful.
Process clarity is one of the three key foci in effective organizational design, along with people and technology. Yet with the haphazard process management common in many businesses, it is little wonder that employees struggle to do a good job. How an invoice is processed, customer complaint handled or engineering drawing approved in many organizations depends more on who does it and what day of the week it was done on rather than on sound business reasoning. Where process and role clarity is lacking, personal idiosyncrasies and political maneuvering take over.
Moreover, research indicates that less than 20 percent of product defects and service problems are due to non-random factors, such as malicious employees, machine breakdown and poor raw materials. The other 80 percent or more of problems is due to systemic deficiencies with processes. So, although mapping your business processes is relatively simple to do and involves no costly capital expenditure, it pays huge dividends in business efficiency and employee commitment. If you are thinking about mapping your processes, here are ten key pointers to keep in mind.
I see many organizations, both large and small, continue to communicate fragments of important policies and processes to employees through one-time emails and the like. This could include a new purchase authorization policy or a new data entry procedure. Expecting employees to forage through past emails and other transitory type documents only leads to wasted time and exasperation.
1. Involve employees who actually do the work in the mapping
Employees who do the actual work are in the best position to know the detailed steps in each process. They are also most familiar with the common roadblocks and bottlenecks and the key contacts in the organization to get things done. Involve your employees up front by inviting them to join process-mapping teams. Keep managers and supervisors out of the process-mapping sessions, as they have a tendency to dominate the sessions with their own “expertise.”
2. Identify process start and end activities
For each process, clearly identify the start and end. If the team neglects this important step at the start of each mapping session, in the team’s enthusiasm, extra activities will quickly creep into the picture until the process becomes unmanageable. Think of one activity that triggers the process, such as an invoice appearing in an in tray. This is the start. Then think of the last activity performed. It may be, for example, posting an item to the General Ledger.
3. Identify process objective and inputs and outputs
This is where work starts to take on new meaning for employees. The team leader should ask employees why each process is performed and what are the expected results of each process. Not only does this help to focus attention on removing non-value add activities, but it also gives employees a sense of purpose in their working life.
Asking the teams to identify the inputs to the process and the expected outputs will serve to clarify what the process needs before it can begin and what customers of the next process will get before they can begin. For example, agreeing that widget assembly cannot begin until the joining screws are supplied will eliminate a lot of idle work in progress.
4. Identify Customer and Supplier requirements
Next, each team needs to work out who the suppliers and customers of the process are. This step is critical as it identifies who the team needs to work with collaboratively to maximize business results. If a process does not have a customer, then eliminate it as it has no useful purpose. Every employee working in a process should serve either an internal customer or an external customer or both. Each team should then ask of their customers what it is they want from the process, in terms of quality, turn around time, and so on. For example, the internal customers of the purchasing team may require orders to be fulfilled within two days unless placed on backorder.
Conversely, the team needs to clarify what it is they need of their suppliers, both internal and external, to perform their process effectively and efficiently. A purchasing team may require other departments, for example, to fill in all fields of the Purchase Order prior to submission.
5. Identify a Process Owner for each process
For each process, specify one Process Owner. Identifying one person who is responsible for the process end to end is critical to ensuring process efficiency. Where processes flow through departments, as all major processes do, the Process Owner will need to have sufficient authority and credibility to make decisions spanning these departments. There is no more effective way that I know to dismantle quickly and effectively the silo walls that get built separating departments.
6. Manage the level of detail
The magic of process maps lay in their seemingly simple visual presentation of complex ideas. One picture can tell a thousand words. Each process map should take up no more than one page, with its definition taking up just one other. If a map takes up more than one page, identify sub-processes within each process and show each sub-process on a separate page. Use clear referencing to link each sub-process with its associated macro process. I have seen process maps that flow on page after page after page. These do little more than confuse employees.
Do not try to document everything that goes on in your organization. Decide on the priority processes and concentrate on these. Processes from which you can gain quick wins are those that interface with external customers and suppliers and those that are currently providing you with your biggest headaches.
7. Use standardized mapping conventions
What you want is for anyone in the organization to be able to pick up a process map and understand instantly what it is they are seeing.
Standardize on mapping conventions and formatting of the maps. Mapping symbols, flow direction, page layout, fonts, titling and so on, should be the same from one map to another. Keep the number of flow chart symbols to a minimum. You should need no more than six to keep the maps easy to read.
8. Get agreement on the process
The most beautifully documented process will mean naught if there is little commitment from the major actors to follow them. Crunch time will come in those tough times of impending deadlines and snappy stakeholders.
I find what works well is getting formal sign-off from the process-mapping team leader, the Process Owner and the managers of the interfacing processes (both supplier and customer). This may seem overkill and you may get some resistance, however, getting formal agreement now will save you much heartache later when people start to come up with excuses as to why the seemingly agreed process does not apply in this or that case.
9. Document the process
The most important thing that team leaders can do after the team agrees on the process definition and steps is to write it down. What works well is brainstorming all the process activities first, writing each process step on a Post-it note and then having a team member place the Post-it notes in order on flipchart paper. The next hour or so is then devoted to arguing about the activities and order of steps. Post-it notes can easily be moved around during this debating process. Only when there is full agreement are the lines and arrows drawn in to signify the process flows. Get the process formally drawn up and make sure that they are made easily accessible to all who need them. Fix them to operator machines, post them on the corporate intranet or place them in a loose-leaf binder on each officer’s desk. Put them where people do their work and make sure that they are accurate, concise and easily understandable.
10. Convey management commitment and train your teams
Although mapping business processes will not cost you much in capital expenditure, it does require concerted effort. Get the management team to show visible support and commitment to the project. Activities here include holding regular project progress meetings and rewarding the most productive teams. Teams will loose faith and energy quickly if management support is seen as piecemeal or being given grudgingly. Team leaders will need to be able to organize effectively and manage their time, along with possessing the necessary interpersonal and analytical thinking skills.
Each team will also need a mix of abilities; people who can think creatively, bond the team and follow through on tasks, to name just a few.
Where these skills are lacking, they will need to be learned. Do not skimp on training the teams and their team leaders. This is a very wise commitment, as such teams have proved to be a fertile ground for developing the next line of leaders.
Use as a basis for further improvement
The primary objective of mapping business processes is to form a common understanding from which process improvements can be achieved. If this is the first time that your organization is setting out to map its processes, be ready to receive a bonus. The initial act of defining processes brings new clarity of roles, objectives and activities. For every team that I have worked with, this new shared understanding has uncovered many areas for improvement during the initial mapping process.
Once your teams have completed mapping their key processes, turn them into continuous improvement teams. Not only do the documented maps serve as the agreed baseline for ongoing process improvement, they also make for excellent induction and training resources. Now sit back and watch your business soar.
© Leslie Allan. All rights reserved.
Leslie Allan is Managing Director of Business Performance Pty Ltd. He has been assisting organizations for over 20 years, contributing in various roles as project manager, process consultant and trainer. Visit his company’s web site atfor a rich source of information, advice and tools in a variety of management areas and to download trial versions of products, free templates and introductory chapters.