Business Process Handoff Challenges

Last updated by Ian James, Mar 2, 2018

Successfully handling a business process handoff challenge can go a long way to improving department efficiency and success.

Two running figures in a relay race handing a bation beween eachother

Imagine for a moment that you are part of a breathless crowd watching an Olympic relay race. It’s close, but your national team – the home team – is competitive for gold. With tensions high, the crowd chants … and then the baton drops.

That’s it. The entire stadium groans in unison as their dream of gold medals and glory shatter. Imagine the humiliation of the two who dropped the ball … or in this case the baton.

What is a Handoff?

In the context of business process, we call that baton transfer a handoff. It is the moment when the responsibility for a particular task passes from one person to another. It is also the moment when the process is at its most vulnerable. Things frequently can and do go wrong here. When people talk about poor communication or poor teamwork, chances are they are talking about handoffs.

Managing handoffs successfully may not win your team a gold medal but it will build a foundation for the efficiency and success of any process. Unfortunately, handoffs often present challenges that would make even Olympic athletes break out in a cold sweat.

Improving Handoffs

A handoff is part of a process. And if that process is repeatable (which it most likely is because if it were not it would be a project), then the handoff will happen repeatedly, at the same point of the process. So, if you can work out the kinks on the handover, it will pay dividends in efficiency. But how?

The most common errors for handoffs tend to be specific to the roles played in the exchange. Sender errors commonly revolve around providing insufficient information. Receiver errors either relate to a failure to ask for clarification or to make errors of assumption.

Both parties may be guilty of passing the buck when things go wrong. Both parties may make assumptions about the other person’s expectations of the outcome.

Think back a moment to our relay team. Suppose our runners put in as much work and practice passing the baton as they do conditioning themselves for the race itself. Then surely passing the baton would have less risk of error. We should put as much thought into handoffs as we do into activities in a process.

You can prepare for better handoffs by standardizing them. Know the required information you need to pass at the moment of handoff. You will find more about this in the Improving Handoffs Guide. It includes a worksheet that will help you work through and sequence the key components between sender and receiver. Sign up below.

Handoff Discipline

In some cases handoffs need only a relatively informal procedure. So, handoffs between members of the same team are less structured. However, a handoff between departments or where the participants have “dropped the baton” before requires a more formal approach. In these circumstances, you might find it useful to use a handoff agreement worksheet to cover the essential elements of the handoff.

After the Handoff

A handoff agreement usually requires more than one iteration: you probably will not get it right the first time. Even if it seemed to go flawlessly, a little fine-tuning can save on time or improve communication in subsequent exchanges. If you include a plan for regular reviews in the handoff agreement, you acknowledge potential room for improvement. If you value their input, players will be more invested in the outcome.

Process Improvement Handoffs Video

handoff video

If you wanted to improve a process begin by mapping it out. It would probably look a bit like this. Now, there is nothing wrong with process maps, they just don’t tell the whole story. The irony is that the biggest opportunities for process improvement never show up on a process map.

This video is focuses on one of those opportunities. If you are trying to make improvements to your own processes, a good beginning is Hand-offs. A handoff occurs in a process when responsibility for the next activity passes from one person to another.

So, let’s zoom in on part of a process. Here we have two activities, but let’s say that this is at the boundary of two people’s responsibilities. So, the output from the first activity will have to be passed to the person responsible for the second. In other words, it’s a hand-off.

handoff focused improvement efforts

The best a process map illustrates a swimlane between the two. But what’s really going on here? It’s not only the dividing line between two people or department’s responsibilities. The details specific to this particular part of the process are being passed as well. If you like, it is the process data.
There is an additional burden of communication at a hand-off. We need to pass on information so that the next person can complete the task.

This crucial moment is where things can and often do go wrong. If we don’t do a good job of passing the right information at the handoff, we risk errors and delays.

handoff in practice

The risk is low when the process has very little variation from instance to instance. In other words, if it is a cookie cutter process, then the information is routine and the receiver already knows what to do.

Unfortunately, many real world processes are rarely cookie cutter. Some details tend to vary. If, for example, we asked the recipient to purchase a laptop for a new hire we might need a budget, maybe a brand or maybe the date required for use.

The first sign of a problem will be a flurry of communication –probably emails– back and forth as the sender keeps asking for additional details.

Insufficient information to complete a task can frustrate us all. At the very least, it causes delay. Worse, it means errors down the line, like we go over budget on that laptop, or the computer hasn’t the capacity for the required job.

The more variation in a process, the less cookie cutter it is, the more important and detailed the handoff needs to be. Count the increased variation as an opportunity for improving the process.

What if we could agree upfront for a given process what information to forward at the point of the handover? That would allow the recipient to complete the task without delay and with accuracy. We call this a handoff agreement or a hand-off design.

Handoff agreements don’t have to be formal or bureaucratic to be useful, and they are easy to set up. The investment of effort in a conversation or a simple form pays off time and again.

Once people know the required information for a successful hand-off, they generally make the effort to provide it. If they don’t know, then they have no clue of the risk to the process.

The swimlanes on the process map don’t show where vulnerable handoffs are, where real processes are at the most risk of falling through the cracks. Taking the time to communicate between sender and receiver minimizes the chances of that happening.

There are lots of other ways to improve processes. You can dig deeper into this subject by watching other process videos in this series. You can get them and also download an example of a handoff agreement above.

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