You Can't Change What You Can't See - Make a Process Visible

Harold Strawbridge, VP, Innovation and Continuous Improvement, Inglis
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Harold Strawbridge, VP, Innovation and Continuous Improvement, Inglis

Making a process visible through mapping is a key to sharply focus an organization’s precious resources on continuous improvement. The perception that process mapping is done by process professionals and requires software is a barrier to making improvements as a normal part of operations.

For many companies, there are either no process professionals or the pros are assigned to a limited number of projects. Since a map provides to a process owner what diagnostic images provide to a surgeon, it’s important to build mapping competence in more people in the operation.

I’ve seen many instances where people talk about a process instead of sketching the process. The simple act of sketching a process is the start of developing a shared picture of how things work today.  An effective improvement effort begins when people SEE all the steps and roles in the process. When the people in a process get to an accurate and shared understanding that a process map provides, they have what they need to spot missed handoffs, non-value added steps and “on the job but never documented work arounds”. Most importantly, with a process map drawn by engaged process participants, you avoid executive tampering. 

You’ve seen executive tampering; that’s when an executive, removed from the details of the process, brainstorms an improvement. Imagine you have a pain in your elbow and make a doctor’s appointment.  “Hey doc, it hurts when I do this.”  Your doctor has a knowing smile and a gleam in their eye. “I think I know what it is!  I have an opening today. Let’s operate!”  No hands on exam or an x-ray? You wouldn’t accept a snap judgement to schedule the surgery. Yet some executives make process changes with little examination (and the same knowing smile and the gleam in the eye).

My hope is that my business process colleagues will help people in their organizations build their competence in process mapping. How do you do that? To start, let me paraphrase Mel Brooks’ dialogue from Blazing Saddles, “Software, you don’t need no stinking software!” The tactics start by asking process owners to sketch the five to seven major steps of the current process. Encourage them to avoid noting detailed process steps. Ask them to sketch the processes as if they were explaining it to their Aunt Angie or Uncle Steve. Also ask them to note where they see potential improvements and not to stop sketching until the entire process is on paper. And while they sketch, ask them to answer some essential questions:

  ‚ÄčThe simple act of sketching a process is the start of developing a shared picture of how things work today   

• How does the process start?

• What roles are involved in the process?

• What tools are used to perform the process?  Tools can include forms, e-mail, phone, reference materials as well as the typical things people think of as tools.

• How does the process end?

• How do you know the process is successful?

The person you’re encouraging will start to get it. They’ll discover how a process decomposes into sub-processes, activities and tasks. They will recognize steps that used to make sense but now don’t add value. They end up with a map that’s ready to use as the base for improvement.

The most important product is the competence of the process owner to make their process visible.

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