Demystifing Business Processes

Have you ever had a problem that you know little or nothing about land on your desk at work? Does the problem make you feel overwhelmed and uncertain as to where to begin? Challenges like this usually occur when you already have a full workload, unrealistic deadlines, and limited resources. What can you do when you feel lost, like Hansel or Gretel trying to find the way out of the forest?

Learning to navigate through unfamiliar territory goes a long way toward easing the burden and can help you feel comfortable dealing with the unknown. Business process improvement (BPI) work, the systematic examination and improvement of administrative processes, can seem scary and overwhelming because no one teaches this navigation skill in school. But once you give it some thought, everything is a process, from making breakfast for yourself in the morning to building the space shuttle. In both cases, you follow a series of actions or steps to bring about a result. Making breakfast, no matter how informal, is still a process. You brew the coffee, cook the eggs, and toast the bread. If Vince Lombardi had run a business instead of a football team, we might remember him today for saying that process isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Working on business processes helps demystify the process and makes a seemingly complex process less intimidating. Process improvement work also gives you the chance to engage a cross-functional team in the work so that everyone can learn the end-to-end business process, instead of simply focusing on his or her own piece of the process. You will find that, as you do the work, few employees understand the end-to-end process. Employees may understand their own piece but not how the entire process works from beginning to end. When a team works together on improving business processes, the work itself provides a means for colleagues to talk about common topics, and the team effort promotes an understanding of the interconnectivity of the work.

When you focus on a business process, it appears less threatening to colleagues than focusing on the employees who do the work. The process of finding challenges and linking those challenges to the process instead of to a particular employee leads to easier, less threatening solutions. No one employee or group of employees has to worry about repercussions.

On the other hand, BPI does affect the entire business system, including the employees who do the work; the information technology systems that support the process; the measurements established to assess the effectiveness, efficiency, and adaptability of the process; and reward and recognition programs that exist in a company.

The process inventory is a list of the business processes that a company or department owns, and you have to build one if you find that such a list does not exist. You can identify business processes by reviewing the work done by a department, by scanning job descriptions, or by talking to colleagues to identify their roles and responsibilities. Since a single business process can have multiple subprocesses, you can further break down each main process into subprocesses. As you build the process inventory, break major processes into subprocesses to make sure you do not overlook any business process. Another way to organize the process inventory is to group all business processes under general category names.

As an analogy, think about building a house. What do you do first? Most people either hire an architect to help with the design or find an existing house plan they like. By starting with the design, you know the size of the house and have some idea of how much it will cost to build. A blueprint provides your contractor with step-by-step specifications to follow throughout the building process.

In an ideal world, you would start out by creating a contract to establish a clear definition of what is and is not included in a BPI effort. Because we do not live in an ideal world, the scope definition document provides you with the next best way to keep the work on track. It serves the same purpose as a contract because it establishes boundaries, but it does so in a manner that appears far less intimidating to your colleagues, an important point when working as an internal consultant in your company.

Taking the time to set the foundation helps to prevent scope creep, a risk in many projects. Scope creep is veering away from the original purpose of the work without an increase in time, resources, or money. If you have ever built a house, then you have probably experienced scope creep. It occurs when you make changes after the contractor has started construction. Any change, such as adding an additional light fixture or changing the location of the stove, increases the cost of the house beyond what you originally agreed to pay.