5 Warning Signs You Need To Improve Your Business Processes

Written by Ian James, Feb 25, 2016

These 5 warning signs are telling you it may be time to improve your business processes.

A cartoon image showing a 5 stop signs

It’s usually pretty obvious when you have a crisis with your processes. You lose a customer. You take a big loss. Things are frustratingly slow. You are always firefighting. People aren’t happy.

But things don’t get like that overnight. What usually happens is that there is a gradual deterioration. Or perhaps things were never that great in the first place.  They were just mediocre before they became bad. Either way, the smart thing to do is to recognize the signs before things get to crisis levels. Here’s a guide to what to look for.

Email overload

Now, I know everybody struggles with email.  There are lots of causes of email overload. There is spam and the dreaded cc and reply all.  But did you know that poor process generates a lot of email?

Here is why. Most organizations have some kind of software application that runs a business. So, a trucking company has trucking software.  A medical billing company has a billing application.

In order to do its job, software mimics actual business processes. When you move things around on a screen, or enter data, you are using the processes the designer built in. In effect, our processes flow through software pipes.

There are, however, always a few cases where something is wrong or missing. Sometimes they are so screwed up we can’t proceed within the software.  It’s almost as if it is too lumpy for the pipe. So we have to take it out of the pipe and use something else. That is when we turn to email. For many organizations, email is the default workflow application.

This is not a trivial problem. Even though it may not be many cases, it is what causes all the headaches. Let’s say that the Pareto rule applies here. So the 20% that we can’t push through the pipe generates 80% of our workload. That’s pretty typical. And, that’s a lot of work.  Now, exceptions are a direct result of poor processes. If we fix the process, we can reduce the workload. And that will show up as less email.

Spreadsheet Mania

I’m willing to bet that someone, somewhere, in your organization is tracking his or her work on a spreadsheet. That’s if you’re lucky. More likely, lots of people are tracking their work on spreadsheets.

Ask yourself why people are doing this.  In my experience, the single biggest cause of anxiety in the workplace is a lack of a sense of control.  People feel out of control when they are responsible for things and can’t keep track of them.

Suppose you work in an office with unclear processes. You want to bring order to the chaos. You can’t keep track of it in your head, so you turn to some other means. For most people that is a spreadsheet. If your people are using a lot of spreadsheets, you know that their processes are out of control.

paper based process documentation

Perils of Paper Process Documentation

Periodically, people realize that they need to formalize their processes. So they set aside some time and sit down and hammer it out. They decide how they want the process to work.  Some lucky person then gets the job of writing it all up.

Perhaps you have your copy of some process documentation in a ring binder.  If you do, I bet you haven’t read it for a long time. And why should you? At best, it is only a historical record of what the process used to be.

The sad truth is that paper is not a good medium to record your processes on. Processes change all the time. Process documentation committed to paper does not. Every time you make a change to a process, you have to update multiple copies of the documentation.  It’s a huge effort. That almost never happens.

It’s not so much that the documents are difficult to update. It’s more that you are not reviewing them. Did you know that processes have a life of their own?  That they have a habit of evolving in silent and invisible ways? If you let that happen it will do so in an uncontrolled and undisciplined way. So don’t be surprised when they deteriorate and start to cause you problems.

 Process Variation

Do you find that different people use different processes to achieve the same task? That’s another pretty good warning sign.  Usually, this means that there is no agreed common process.  Or there is no training or up to date (see above) documentation to tell them what to do. So they do their best.  Left to themselves they will come up with something different from each other. The question is does it really matter if we get to the same endpoint?

Well, it does become a problem when this produces different outcomes or expectations.

Suppose I am in a process sequence. I receive work from two people. Each performs the same part of the process differently.  As a result, they deliver different things to me.

When I receive my work from one person I do one thing. When I receive it from the other guy, I have to do something different. That requires certain agility on my part.

How do you train a new hire when there is this kind of variation?  The novice is looking for certainty, not latitude.  Ambiguity leads to greater risk in the final result.


Hand-Off Oscillations

Say what? OK, this is a bit of jargon, which is something I usually avoid. However, it has its place here. A handoff oscillation is when somebody gives somebody else a task to do. It’s easy to spot on a process diagram. It’s where the process crosses a swim lane. That indicates that the responsibility is passing from one person to another.

Now, this looks fine on the map but often goes wrong in practice. What looks like a simple handoff can become a whole discussion.  It is not just responsibility that is being passed here. The sender usually has to pass on  related information. Technically, I suppose you could call this meta-data.

It is information about the task. Like how much time the task should take. Or perhaps it’s a budget for the task. It can be a million things. But the sender needs to supply the information. Without it the person who receives the task cannot complete it.

Sometimes, actually often, that does not happen. At least not reliably.

When the sender does not hand over all the meta- data, the person next in the sequence, lets call them the receiver, takes a look at the task and realizes they don’t know how to proceed. So the receiver has to ask for more information.

After a delay, the sender responds. But maybe that’s still not enough information. We repeat the cycle again. And if we are not careful, we do so over and over again. Hence the term oscillation.

Now, is this a big deal?  It can be if we don’t respond quickly. In practice, every time there is a need for further data, there is a delay. Instead of being a swift and efficient handover, what we get is an accumulation of delays. It can be days before the receiver has what they need to begin the task.

Recognize any of these signs?

What can you do if you recognize some of these signs in your own organization?  First, don’t worry. There’s a silver lining. You can start paying attention to these issues and tackling them. As it happens, none of this is rocket science. There are well-established methods of overcoming them. And you have time before things slide to the point where you have some sort of crisis. But I would not put it off.

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