Put Employees at Center of Process Improvement Efforts

Ann All

One of the wise pieces of advice included in my recent How to Pick That First BPM Project blog post (gleaned from experts Nathaniel Palmer, Sandy Kemsley and Steve Russell) was to select a process that impacts the entire organization, not just a single department or unit. That advice is echoed in a Harvard Business Review piece authored by process innovation consultant Brad Power in which he shares three factors that contribute to process improvement failures and suggests three ways to overcome them.


His first failure factor is, yes, a tendency to optimize processes within functions and departments rather than across them. So how to fight this natural tendency? I like Power's advice to use your organization's ability to meet customer expectations as a starting point, given that satisfying customers almost always involves processes that cross organizational boundaries.


A great way to get visibility into these processes is to have senior managers spend time working alongside rank-and-file employees in different business units, something that Amazon.com requires its senior execs, up to and including CEO Jeff Bezos, to do every other year. Amazon isn't the only company to do this. I wrote about CIO Tony Scott's stint in a Microsoft call center earlier this year, commenting that it provided invaluable product feedback.


Another great tip from Power: Identify the company's four to eight core processes (e.g., order fulfillment, service request resolution, product development) as seen from the customer's perspective and assign process owners to manage them. As he notes:

Overlaying the process dimension on the functional organization creates a matrix that mitigates the dominance of the functional view.

Power's other two failure factors, and his suggested solutions:


Inability of frontline workers to contribute to process improvement efforts. Powers suggests employing performance metrics that help illustrate employees' impact on other departments and on the overall customer experience. He writes: "Senior leaders must translate the company's overarching goals into a critical few process performance targets, as seen from the customer's point of view. For example, a goal of increasing the percentage of accurately filled orders from 85 percent to 99 percent will force manufacturing, order entry and distribution personnel to understand why 14 percent of all orders are filled incorrectly (a problem in which all three functions are likely to have a role)."


Russell and Kemsley also had some great tips on involving users: Provide maximum flexibility to users in how they execute their work. Make ad hoc/dynamic process management software functionality to users so they can capture emergent processes or identify areas that may not be well suited to structured processes. Gather user feedback after they've had a chance to use the BPM system in their daily work and employ their suggestions to determine which functions should be included in later iterations.


Process improvement edicts issued from top managers. Simply issuing edicts will likely result in short-term process improvements but may fall short of broader transformational efforts. Power says organizations must strive to create a culture of continuous improvement in which all employees are encouraged to take an active role. He suggests C-level executives should incorporate continuous improvement in their values statements. More importantly, they should back up these statements by rewarding managers for behaviors that encourage it, such as pursuing innovations in performance and imparting problem-solving skills to their employees.


Earlier this year, I interviewed Sean Poccia, director of Information Services for Comag Marketing Group, who impressed me with his emphasis on involving employees in continuous improvement efforts. He surveys his workforce monthly and creates a venue to allow every employee to provide feedback around the user experience, "anything they feel can help them do their jobs better." Then, he said:

We take those ideas, vet them very quickly, take the ones we feel have real merit and get them to senior management. We bring them to fruition as quickly as possible. It instills a sense of ownership in our employees, when they can see their suggestions come to market that quickly. It helps us promote a continuous improvement culture. Many organizations store up ideas and batch them in six-month releases. We do it monthly. ...

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