Continuous process improvement is a question of company culture

Most entrepreneurs and founders hold little doubt that solid processes and systems are fundamental building blocks in sustainability and growth. They’re usually also well-versed in the ‘hindsight statements’ of other battle-scarred entrepreneurs who either lament the cost of their process failings or praise them as a divine savior.

Marcel Herrmann Telles reminds us of the importance of processes and systems in his sage advice that a company can seize extraordinary opportunities only if it is very good at the ordinary operations, but how realistic is it to pursue the perfect system and doesn’t there come a time when working on the process is keeping us from doing the actual work?

When you’re in the trenches building and executing great plans and a grand vision, one that’s sustainable well into the future, it can be frustrating navigating the seemingly blurry line between investing enough into the strategic development of processes and systems and the need to get the job done today. Entrepreneurs are acutely aware of the fact that the decisions they make today will impact the success and the longevity of their company and they’re constantly forced to confront the question of whether they’re working on the right things. So is it really possible to create systems and processes that truly support the people using them, as opposed to just making their jobs harder and more tedious?

The answer is twofold. First, getting to the ‘place’ of the perfect system and perfect processes is not the goal because there is no such thing — the goal is to achieve continuous improvement. Second, continually improving systems and processes is a question of company culture, not task orientation.

Empower your people to develop & improve business processes … continuously

The amount of time (and money) spent by large organizations on fixing broken processes is a place no business owner wants to go, if they can avoid it. Avoiding this frustrating situation takes commitment, but your team are the resources at your fingertips who, with a bit of support and guidance, can be your greatest asset even as your business grows and roles and faces change.

One of the best ways to empower employees is to support them in taking full ownership of their role within the organization. This includes the development and improvement of processes specific to their role, as well as providing input and collaboration on those that impact or interact with their own.
Taking ownership of the processes within their role enables employees to better understand the difference they make and how what they do fits into the bigger picture. It also encourages them to identify, address and improve problems when and where they occur with less risk of it impacting other parts of the business.
Your employees need to be supported in developing business processes — they may need templates, training and meetings geared toward the process developing process.

Make your business processes transparent and accessible

Transparency and accessibility are key components to both excellent processes and a culture that embodies continuous improvement.

Transparency means there are no grey areas, where every part of the process is identified and aligned with related processes. The litmus test is whether a person who has little or no knowledge of the procedure would be able to carry it out to an acceptable standard with reference to the documented process. This will highlight gaps any gaps in the process itself as well as in its documentation. This also promotes transparency between the roles and responsibilities of team members, which promotes a better understanding of how they fit together.

Accessibility is of course necessary to achieve this kind of transparency, so it’s important that business process documentation is just that; accessible to everyone. Simple file sharing systems like Google Drive and Dropbox are obvious choices, but just because business process documents are physically accessible doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be continuously used and improved — there’s a bit more to it than that.

Bake process and system development into your company culture

You can lead a horse to water, but his mindset determines whether or not he’ll drink. And so it is with your team. Empowering your people to take ownership of their role and making documentation transparent and accessible is a start, but to achieve the real ‘continuous’ part of the equation, you need to draw of the power of culture.

Company culture is the glue that’s going to hold the parts together. It’s the things that happen every day to remind the team of ‘who we are and where we’re going’. It’s not only knowing the values and the vision of the company, but it’s being supported to put them into action every day. From a leader or owner’s perspective, it’s about putting your money where your mouth is and making sure that the things you say matter and need to happen are supported at ground-level, day in, day out.

So in the case of continuously improving systems and processes, those documents have to be accessible, but you may also need to provide some training and resources to enable your team to create, use and improve them valuably. You also need to incorporate regular communication and mechanisms to keep process improvement top of mind and a top priority. There are many ways you can do this depending on what best suits your business, but the important thing is that they are done as a matter of course.

• Regular peer process reviews (where team members ‘test run’ others’ processes)
• Update relevant process documents as standard meeting action items
• Stewardship of particular process documents within role descriptions & accountability sets
• Process improvement tied to & documented in OKRs (objectives & key results)
• Collaborative process improvement sessions where the melding & overlap of several different processes is refined & improved as a whole.

Keep documentation simple so it’s easy (and helpful) to use

Simplicity and standardization are key elements of documents that are actually useful and therefore, used. There’s no need to get fancy, but you will want to create some kind of template to assist and guide your team in creating and maintaining their process documents.

Here are some common elements of a process document, but remember to start simple and allow the document to evolve as your team and process does;

A process name and description
• Come up with a unified naming system so processes can easily be found
• Make sure the description is brief and accurate

Desired outcome
• Why does this process exist?

A scope statement or scope boundaries
• Defines the process itself and how it is to be applied e.g. a standardized sales process may be applied 3 out of 5 of the company’s products
• Identify what triggers the start of the process and what signifies the end

An responsibility or applicability matrix
• Shows the reader, at a glance, what the process applies to and who’s responsible for each part

Summary of services & roles impacted by this process
• These will also be reiterated at applicable points within the document, but having a brief summary allows a team member to quickly identify other roles and processes relevant to this each
• Using a file management system like Google Docs allows you to create hyperlinks between documents for added convenience

Organize the process activities
• The steps that are taken to get the job done in sequence
• Identify decision points along the way

A decision matrix
• Shows team members how to make decisions specifically related to this process, including avenues of escalation and approval

Tie process improvement to objectives and key results

I’m a big fan of OKRs for getting the right things done and measuring the results, so if you’re serious about continuous process improvement, then it makes perfect sense to make this a quarterly objective.

For example, your objective is what you want to accomplish, so it might be something like;

Continuously improve our processes and their documentation to allow our team to be as efficient, cohesive and productive as possible.

Then the key results might be something like;

Each team member must review 1 process key to another team member’s role and provide improvement feedback each quarter.

This is just a basic example and you would tailor this to your specific business goals etc. You could embellish this approach with a system that identified a rotation of processes due for review each quarter and add a review template with a simple grading system where the key result would specify a grade target.

The point is that recognizing the impact that systems and processes has on your ability to grow your business exponentially is the critical beginning. Turning that understanding into a commitment with measurable results over time depends on your ability to embed continuous improvement into your company culture from day one.

Processes and systems are fundamental efficiency and growth enablers, but they’re also a work in progress, a constant evolution, or at least they should be. Continuous improvement allows a company to be more productive, more agile, more efficient, more creative and more dynamic and who doesn’t want to achieve that? Realizing that dream in the future starts with developing solid processes and a culture of continuous improvement today. Equip and empower your team to contribute their best today and the mechanisms to lift that bar even higher tomorrow.