This article is published on LinkedIn on Feb 8th, 2021 by Mr. Ravi Ramamurthy – CEO, Epiance
Advent of technology has shifted the balance of complexity. Front end systems, self service systems, or processes that are exposed to customers and end users have become simpler at the cost of backend processes that forms the bulwark for the front-end processes. As organizations grow in scale and complexity, the balance of complexity also shifts further and the scale of complexity of backend processes, processes that are not exposed to the end users/customers/client become disproportionately more complex. Organizations that become adept in managing these complexities without sacrificing efficiency and productivity tend to do better than organizations who muddle through the process of enhanced complexity.
In today’s world, an organization which can perform processes better, faster, with higher accuracy will thrive and organizations which are unable to do so will perish. How does one go about managing the complex processes of today in a holistic manner? How can one build a system that will consistently sustain such an endeavor? How can one reach gold standards of Process execution? The “Top 10 best practices” can give some insights into how an enterprise can accomplish this task.
Best Practice #1: Know thyself
What we do not know, we cannot measure and what we cannot measure, we cannot improve. Knowing current processes and how our workforce is performing them is critical and essential, before we can embark on the next step of process improvement. This activity may become more complex as an organization grows or spreads its tentacles into many markets and geographies. Employees perform differently in different geographies. Cultural, linguistic and other nuances can impact process performance in dramatically different ways. It is therefore imperative that an organization captures the current AS IS process in all its grandiosity.
Enterprise needs to capture the current AS IS processes in two flavors:
– The process as performed by the process experts or the Subject Matter experts.
– The process as executed by the rank and file.
It is important to differentiate the two, because the processes as performed by the subject matter experts can become the benchmark for the entire organization. Process efficiency and process improvement measures will have to keep the SME process as its yardstick. Utmost attention needs to be paid to ensure that this process is captured with as little noise or defects as possible. Any noise or defect in this process can have an intensifying effect in downstream usage and efficiencies.
The AS IS process on the basis of which applications were developed (most modern processes have an IT application that automates the execution of the process), tend to become out of sync with the process that is currently being executed, very rapidly. Changes in policies, evolution of the market, Organization growth, new products and services, Mergers and acquisition all play an important role in changing the original process. Unfortunately, the original application cannot keep pace with the changed AS IS process. As a result, the process in many cases is performed by the SME or process expert based on their convenience and capability. One process expert may use a particular calculator program to perform specific operations not envisaged in the original process, while another expert may rely on excel spreadsheet and the third may rely on mental calculations. Such diversity of execution can result in increase in errors and have an impact on the efficiency of execution. Process optimization is a key step to process improvement. Process optimization requires an organization to be aware of all the deviations of the process from its original form. This is another reason why an organization must ensure that robust systems and technology are put in place to document the AS IS process. The document repository and capture system should be dynamic and real-time to keep in pace with the changes.
Best Practice #2: Pay attention to all aspects- Process, applications and especially people
Process, Applications (or Technology) and People are equally important for the success of an organization, but very often organizations pay lip service to the People component and overfocus on the Process and applications aspects of the enterprise. Employees in these organizations are given a “Take it” or “Leave it” kind of an option. With no choice and with the burden of eking out a livelihood, most employees succumb to the pressure and meander along, because many do not have any options. The few who stand out choose their own destiny, the end result being that such organizations either end up with “compromised top talent” or “no talent”.
And yet for long term success all three aspects are equally important for an organization. Processes need to be understood in the context of the people. Whilst the question- “Does process add value to the organization, does it contribute to the topline/bottom line” is important (and is asked too often), the question- “Do the processes add value to the people”, “Does it elevate them, Does it bring out their best” is very often ignored. Most organizations do not care too much about what happens to their people. They either pander to them / reinforce their comfort zones/ tread on egg shells or take a hands-off approach.
Our people are our responsibility, we are their caretakers. One of our key focus should be to bring out their best and make them better human beings. Just like we keep improving technologies with newer and improved versions, it is our onus to make the key resources- our people better versions of what they were yesterday. Sometimes this is not easy- you have to take a contrarian approach, an unpopular stand, say things which make them uncomfortable, rouse them from their slumber, sometimes eulogize them and sometimes give them harsh but necessary feedback. All actions need to manifest from an intent of truth and righteousness. Employees will sense if these actions have a vested interested or are meant to serve a political agenda.
One has to focus on bringing out the innovativeness of an employee. Reward innovations on the job, be sincere in implementing these innovations, if they add value. Give more control to employees of their environment. Give them a bigger say on decisions on their workplaces. Innovation always leads to a happier and healthier workforce. Innovation is also the best antidote for low performance, absenteeism, non-adherence to company vision etc.
Another key aspect to be enhanced is “Authentic Leadership” One has to focus on making all employees Authentic leaders. An authentic leader stands for what is right, aligns himself or herself to the vision of the organizations, focusses on the organization rather than individuals, groups, teams or departments. All their actions emanate from this core value within. They are bold and unafraid to say and do things, even in the face of intense opposition. They are the conscience keepers of the organizations, the moral fiber of the organization who imbue and enhance immunity to an organization even when it is faced with the harshest and gravest adversities. However authentic leadership cannot survive in an organization, if the leadership of the company does not create or is not interested in creating an environment of authenticity.
Best Practice #3: Focus on improving a process before it can be shifted out to another organization or geography
Organizations may prefer to shift non-core and some core processes to another location and in some situations may outsource the entire process. A blind replication of the current AS IS process in the new location was the norm (some organizations are becoming aware of lacunas with this approach). This approach is fraught with many risks and can lead to many downstream inefficiencies. An ideal approach to move a process would be:
The first step would be to identify the gap between the original process /application and the current set of applications and the processes. An insurance company may be dealing with a claims process which was automated 15 years back. The application would have been designed for the original process that was then prevalent. After a gap of two decades, the processes might have been altered in many aspects. Daunting change management resources requirements might have dissuaded the organization from embarking on large scale digital transformation initiatives to their mission critical applications. As a consequence, various ad hoc medley of mini applications fill up the gaps in a suboptimal manner. The processes then become more nonstandard and start developing local flavors much of which the enterprise may be unaware of.
Once the gap is known, removing redundant steps, standardizing some steps may form a part of the Process optimization activity. As the process is optimized and standardized across the organizations, the enterprise can embark on a Process improvement plan.
Best Practice #4: Process improvement should be looked at as a broad spectrum. Process automation through Bots forms a small subset of such an initiative
Once the process is optimized and standardized, one is ready for the next part of the journey- Process Improvement. Process improvement can be done in many possible ways:
1. Change the underlying applications, make it more current, in tune with the current situation.
2. Change the underlying process itself. If the process is cumbersome, alter or simplify it to reduce errors, improve performance etc.
3. If a business process management layer powers the processes in an organization, tweak the process rules or the flow.
4. Very often, the process may suffer as a consequence of poor human performance. Environmental issues can play a big role in human performance. Does the environment inspire performance? Does it pander to the fears and outcome orientation of the employee or does it reach to deeper levels of the individual? Is the environment perceived as parlous by the employee, or do they feel safe to bring out their best? Is the environment riven with politics or does it display a higher level of integrity? Integrity assumes that there is righteousness. Righteousness though an intangible quality, is accurately perceived by most human beings. One may not be able to define it exactly but one knows exactly whether an environment is righteous or not. Willful mistake is a sign of low integrity whereas unintentional mistakes does not point to integrity issues. Poor human performance can also be a result of excessive handholding or complete lack of controls. Humans perform poorly when they are subject to intense scrutiny or too many controls. They also show lack of performance when there are lax controls and no guidance at all. Different individuals require different levels of control. The level of control not only varies between individuals, but it changes with time as well for an individual. A newcomer, not exposed to the process would require close monitoring and support. As the individual progress in their job and as they acquire competency, the level of control can be reduced. Trust is a very important component of any monitoring system. A system should send out overt and covert signals that the purpose of monitoring is to support and aid and not penalize and use the information to cater to vested interests. If poor user empowerment is the issue for lower performance, automated handholding and content that enhance competence will go a long way in plugging the gaps.
5. Sometimes one may need to change the upstream or downstream process. In many cases this would call for syndicated action, wherein many organizations get together and define standards that can ensure a streamlined upstream process. In an ideal world, if all upstream and downstream processes can be streamlined, the productivity can increase dramatically. But given the complexity and differing missions and visions of individual organizations this is unlikely to be achieved. It is obligatory for the enterprise to at least explore such possibilities.
6. Automation through BOTS is yet another possibility that may improve the performance. However, this possibility should be explored only after all the above options have been studied and implemented. It may also be possible for an organization to embark on multiple strategies simultaneously.
7. A biggest source of improvement is often overlooked by many organizations. Empowered employees can be a powerful source for innovations that may result in process improvement. Often this is the most sustainable way of improving a process. Give the control of the process to the individual who is executing the process. Leave them alone just enough, create a safe environment, inoculate them from external corruptions and extraneous influences, stand by them when such an influence gets through, goad them to innovate and reward them appropriately and one would have created a self-sustaining system of continuous process improvement.
Process excellence team is the team which looks at Process improvement. Unfortunately, the singular focus of most teams seems to be the process and the technology and very rarely do they focus on the people aspect. This has to be turned around. The process excellence (should be rechristened to Process, People, Technology excellence team) team should consist of wise, mature men who are authentic leaders and inspire these qualities around them. They should have tentacles into every part of the organization and wield considerable influence in changing or nudging the primary drivers of performance. Creating such structures is essential for an organization to reach gold standards of Process excellence. The new team – Process, People, Technology excellence team(or CoE-PPT) needs to be created with scope and structure as shown below:
The new People, Process and Tech Excellence team needs to be a high powered and a highly empowered team. The head of this team should be selected not just for technology or process prowess but also for his/her people skills. Buddha like, wise, humane, high levels of integrity, technologically savvy, process-oriented, extremely analytical but also ability to be diffused in thinking, unafraid to take the right decisions, above politics or machinations of the organization, synchronized with the vision and values of the organization- these are the essential traits of such an individual. Obviously given the vast scope, the individual should report in directly to the CEO or the board.
Best Practice #5: While creating a TO BE process pay attention to the users in the new geography or location as well
Once a process is optimized, standardized and improved an organization is still not ready to transplant the process into some other location. The culture, people and performance drivers may vary and as a result process performance may suffer once it is moved to a new location. A pilot study for a limited time, with a few users in the new location should be conducted and one should monitor to understand People-process behavior and nuances that may impact performances. Once the nuances are understood, one can look at additional process improvement and do the necessary tweaks before onboarding people at a higher scale.
Best Practice #6: Create a dynamic system to document the TO BE processes. These can become the AS IS process of tomorrow
The TO BE process of today becomes the AS IS process of tomorrow. Many organizations behave as if the processes are static and never change. Practices that presages such constant changes have to be put in place. Process will improve and change over time. They will evolve and will have to keep pace with the changing internal and external environment. It is essential to be cognizant of this reality and put in place technologies and processes that can track the TO BE process and store them electronically. Automated technologies can go a long way in documenting any change in process. The documentation process has to be real-time with respect to the changes that are happening in the process. Giving short shrift to such critical activities can result in a huge gap between what is documented and what is performed. As the gap widens the incentive to document these processes also reduces. Mammoth efforts would then be required to synchronize them again.
Best Practice #7: The #1 cause for failure of any change is not technology or process but the people. Pay particular attention to this aspect
Human beings cherish change when they are put in a safe environment which is governed by fair play and integrity. The human race is meant to be a curious race, but other forces seem to come to the fore when the environments become unsafe or riven by factors which are not governed by any rules of fair play. Unfortunately, even the best organizations of today have been corrupted by human greed at all levels. Entrenching one’s position, proving one’s self worth, seeming to make a difference rather than actually making an impact have become potent forces. What is seen and what is perceived gets more importance than what is real. We are bombarded with a plethora of external information and consequentially our attention spans have shortened. Decisions are made based on first come first decided basis. One does not stop to revisit and think through all perspectives of an issue. Judgements are passed and permanent impressions etched in our mind based on inconsequential and half-baked information. We have become numb to the world outside and unconcerned to the yearnings and the voice that we hear from the inside.
From being a curious race, we have transformed ourselves into a change resistant race. What this means is that we prefer status quo even if it is humdrum, routine and mind numbing. Change is eyed with suspicion and hence there is resistance at all levels. The first question that one asks when confronted with change is “What is in it for me”. One is therefore facing a collective institutional resistance when one is trying to implement digital transformation or changes to an organization. Subversion to change happens at all levels starting from the institutional to the individual.
Against this backdrop a smart transformation leader has to factor in these profound influences and devise antidotes that can fight against organizational sclerosis. World class change leaders know how to tackle the people aspect of change. Apart from managing change, preparing people for change and involving them in the entire process, the change managers also have to create an environment of empowerment. Competence building on the process through self-use content is critical. Users need to be motivated to develop competence and they should be provided with tools and technologies wherein they can learn, measure and certify themselves.
Best Practice #8: Once the TO BE process is implemented, ensure that technologies are implemented to increase the pace of competence
As a new process is implemented in the enterprise, users have to adapt to the new process. Time to reach competence can vary widely depending on many parameters. Fundamentally the new process should fit the user paradigm and technology infrastructure. Any major deviations may result in an abrupt failure of the digital transformation activity. But once these issues have been ironed out, the next objective of the organization is to quickly ramp up productivity of the end users. The productivity graph normally looks like
Using current technologies, it takes too long to reach peak levels of productivity. Competency levels also start from almost Zero at the beginning and then reaches a peak over a period of time. Paradoxically experienced agents find it more difficult to get adjusted to the new system especially if the new process is a dramatically improved version.
Self-empowered content can enhance initial levels of productivity. As the new process is put in place, automated mentoring and coaching on the application can quickly ramp down the time taken to reach peak levels of competency. Creating a collaborative network of users who can share expertise and tacit knowledge amongst themselves will greatly reduce the teams time to competency.
Best Practice #9: Continuous monitoring of processes amongst the entire population of process users is necessary to measure deviation from the TO BE process and to ensure continuous process optimization
It is impossible to design a TO BE process that takes into considerations all the scenarios that an organization faces currently and at the same time provide for changes that may happen in the future. It is inevitable that over a course of time, the actual process starts deviating from the designed process. To some extent deviations should be encouraged. In a controlled and empowerment environment, users will deviate from the process to accommodate the changes demanded by the customers. Controlling the change and becoming overtly rigid may lead to ossification of the process. A very liberal attitude also may be inimical as it leads to runaway changes and the process becomes unstable. A right balance is critical for a healthy growth of a process. An active process is akin to a living human being. Some control is necessary but too much of control can lead to degeneration of the system.
It is therefore essential to ferret out the actual situation on the ground.
Identifying the change from the originally designed TO BE process is the first step. Once this is done, the cause for the change needs to be identified- Is the change due to human inefficiencies, or was it a result of external changes or unforeseen situations. In either case a root cause study is essential to determine the causative factors and address them. While doing so, the organization needs to continually update the process related collaterals- procedures, process expertise, process metrics and other relevant information.
Best Practice #10: Use the knowledge gleaned from such monitoring initiatives to design the next cycle of process mapping and improvement
Continual change to a process is necessary to keep it in sync with the environment. There is an optimal pace of change for every process in an organization. The optimal pace depends on many internal and external factors. Change a process too often and it will become unstable. Change it infrequently and the organizations runs a risk of becoming antedated. There is also an optimal cost of change for a process. Infrequent changes tend to be big bang and run the additional risk of adoption challenges. Too many changes can result in additional cost. The impact on employees is also determined by the pace of change. While it is important to push the boundary of comfort zone of an individual, doing too much can result in a dysfunctional and a demotivated workforce. A sclerotic process may assuage the comfort zone, but may be inimical to the growth of the human being in the long term. One needs to arrive at an optimal rate considering all the three factors:
a) Process Health
b) Cost and risk of adoption
c) Human empowerment and health.
Putting it all together
A comprehensive and complete automated cycle that encapsulates all the ten best practices outlined above is shown. Through the adoption of smart technologies, it is possible to ensure that all the steps are efficaciously executed and the organization reaches a gold standard of process performance.
(Copyright (c) Epiance Software Pvt Ltd)