Tip 4: Where do you Start?

Process Improvement Where do you start?So, you have decided that you want to look at all your business processes and see which ones you can improve.  The problem is that once you get to this point, it is a little overwhelming, where do you start?  And how do you persuade anybody that starting is a good thing to do?

  • Should you start with something that is nice and easy to fix?
  • Should your first move be to go after something that is going to make a really big splash and get a lot of attention?
  • Would it be wise to pick something that your customers are already complaining about?

Where on earth do you start?

The Real Problem

The truth of the matter (and this might be hard to believe) is that most of your business processes are fairly easy to fix.  The issue is invariably not one of opportunity, or ease of fixing, the issue is normally one of political buy in.  They don’t want to do it

It seems like a really perverse situation.  Why wouldn’t they change their processes in the interest of improved customer service and reduced cost?

Well there are plenty of reasons:

  • They have been well paid doing it this way for years
  • They set up the current process
  • They don’t really care what happens downstream in order processing / the x-ray department / stores / wherever, because it isn’t their problem
  • If you change that process it will impact their targets and they will look bad

The list goes on and on.

So they are the problem and if they don’t want to play you will be on a hiding to nothing, so you have to take care of them first, then the rest will be easy.

Taking care of them

So how exactly do you do that?  Well it isn’t rocket science and you know the answer already.  There are three easy steps

Step One.  Get some credibility

The most important thing is to get them to realise that you might just be able to help.  There is one simple way to do that and that is to help.  Work out who it is you need to impress the most first (your boss, his boss? The manager of department 123?) then sit down with that person and ask them what their problems are.  Then pick one and fix it.

The issue with this approach is that they will talk to you about the urgent issues, the current pressing things that need to be resolved.  It might be that these are the same as the biggest most important issues, but it is a little unlikely.  No doubt the current burning issue will be that they are half a person short in the mail room or dispensing or enquiries, and in the overall scheme of things this amounts to a fraction of what you have to offer.

But it doesn’t matter, fix that, just get on and do it.  If it is small it will be easy.

And when you have fixed it show that you have fixed it.  Then you will have one less of them to worry about.  That individual will be on your side.

Step Two.  Build some consensus

Now you have some sponsorship and a couple of wins under your belt set up a prioritisation session with a number of sponsors and co-workers.  Run through a structured brainstorming session to uncover what the current issues are.

One simple way of doing this is to:

  • Get everybody to write down their current issues on post it notes, one issue per post it note
  • Place all these post it notes on a wall
  • Group those post it notes into themes, may be it is something to do with setting up new customers, or maybe it is to do with ordering supplies, get your sponsor group to agree what the themes are.
  • Draw up a PICK matrix and get the group to put the themes they have identified in the appropriate boxes
    • P: Possible – Low impact, low degree of difficulty
    • I: Implement – High impact, low degree of difficulty
    • C: Challenge – High impact, high degree of difficulty
    • K: Kill – Low impact, high degree of difficulty
  • Finally get the group to agree as a whole which area or issue is the one to chase down

PICK Matrix


Once again the principle behind stage 2 is that you get your sponsor group to agree what they think is important, and because they think it is important to do, it will be far more likely that you will succeed.

This approach is likely to flush out bigger issues than stage 1, simply because the peer group will challenge each others thinking.

Now you have consensus, once again the key thing is to make sure you deliver against it.

With luck the projects you have delivered so far will have earnt you the right to play.  Now you can start to call the shots a little, start to influence which areas you believe are worth going after by carrying out some more robust analysis

Step Three.  Applying Some Science

Finally you will be able to put some logic into the process of project selection, but it still needs to fit within your organisational context.  To win support and sponsorship you still need to give the organisation what it is looking for.

Read your company strategy, what are the key issues that it needs to resolve?  Pick your battles and improvement efforts around them.

If your strategy is to “Provide world class customer service” look at your customer complaints

If your strategy is to “Be the employer of choice” look at your Human Resource processes

If your strategy is to “Drive a profitable distribution strategy” go and talk with the distribution guys

Once you have agreed the area of focus do some simple analysis:

  1. Determine the relevant metric and carry out some trend analysis, is it getting better or worse?
  2. Work out which are the biggest drivers of dissatisfaction or under performance using the Pareto principle, then tackle those.

For more information on basic analysis read simple service analysis.

The data will speak for itself, it will direct you to the big issues and by now you should have the backing to tackle them.

Words of Caution

As Stephen Covey would say, “Begin with the end in mind”.   That end is to improve the service you offer.  It is very easy to get caught up in an analytical and investigative spiral that won’t take you anywhere.  There are a handful of dead ends it is easy to avoid:

  1. Don’t try to boil the ocean, it is far better to start a project and finish it than getting hung up on analysis on which project to do.  Motion gets noticed.
  2. Look out for “active project re-prioritisation” or the process of changing project horses half way through the race, you will never get a project over the line.  It is invariably best to finish what you start instead of getting distracted by something else.
  3. Process mapping is a means to an end.  That end is improving your processes by communication and understanding.  Process mapping is not an end in itself, mapping everything won’t improve anything, you will just end up with a bunch of process maps.
  4. There is waste and opportunity everywhere.  Consequently carrying out a “waste audit” or “value stream mapping” everything will just tell you that there is waste everywhere.  You already know that.  You are better off just picking a big problem and fixing it.

So, where are you going to start?  Do they agree?

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Post Script

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