Process change is more about people than process. At least until processes can be fully automated. During the past decade, I have championed technology-led process improvement initiatives at over a dozen large companies. I have seen process improvement implemented successfully primarily when such initiatives were pursued with a healthy mix of technology and human understanding of the context. So, when considering process improvement or process automation as RPA becomes more mainstream; do not ignore the people aspect of processes i.e. think about emotional intelligence before artificial intelligence.
The term “Emotional Intelligence” was popularized by two researchers Peter Salavoy and John Mayer, and they describe it as a: “Form of social intelligence that involves the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them, and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and action.” When taking the task of process improvement, it is critical to monitor others’ feelings and emotions, and equally critical to guide your thinking and actions based on information gathered from monitoring others’ emotions.
If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
First things first, as the saying goes “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” If you are the only one seeing the problem in the process but people are not complaining about it, there is a high probability that it is working fine and maybe you do not have complete knowledge of the process. When selecting the process to be improved you would want to be extra careful, first and foremost, to understand the current process in its entirety.
Sometimes processes look one way on paper but are executed differently in person. Just because you have read a process document does not give you thorough knowledge about the process. What seems broken on paper may very well be working flawlessly in reality. The reason being, as people run the processes, they make tweaks knowingly or lazily, but these changes are not reflected in the documentation. Often shadowing the person running the process will give you the most current and up-to-date process. They may tell you the tweaks they made over the period.
No taxation without representation
Once you have identified the process that needs to be improved, make a list of people that may be directly or indirectly associated with that process, be open-minded and thorough. Questions you may be asking to come up with the list of people to be involved, informed, or educated:
- Who runs the process?
- Who is the backup?
- How often the process is run?
- What department owns the process?
- What departments are directly impacted by this process?
- What departments are indirectly impacted by this process?
- Is there a cost implication?
- Is there a legal implication?
- Is there a reputational implication?
- Is there a security implication?
- Are there technology implications?
Do not forget the person who came up with this process to begin with; let’s call him Joe. Especially in small and medium-size organizations, everyone knows Joe, who came up with the process you are trying to improve. Joe may have moved on to another department. However, old-timers in the organization still go to Joe to ask questions about the process, and Joe surely has an opinion on how to improve the process. Joe must be on your list.
Your biggest stakeholder is the person who runs the process. They may want to improve the process or they may not, depending on how secure or insecure they feel in their job, especially in case of efficiency gain. Regardless, if they are included, they can add a lot of value. Plan for how often you will keep them engaged and create a cadence of communication. Listen to all their ideas, incorporate them into your plan.
Accumulate “muscle power” and deflate “whining power”
In addition to the person who is running the process, use your list to identify people with muscle and whining power. Especially in small and medium-size organizations, because the culture in these organizations is very different than in organizations of large scale. In large organizations, process changes are typically top-down. Small and medium organizations are, on one hand, more flat, democratic, more aware of “squeaky wheel staff,” and on the other hand are very hierarchical when it comes to bringing changes. It is important to understand the lay of the land and the politics of the company.
Muscle power comes from one’s position and their network within the organization. These are the people you must educate on what is not working or less efficient, how will you fix it, and why will the new process be more efficient? What is the goal, to reduce cost, increase efficiency, or improve security? You must accumulate muscle power early on. These are the people who will help you during the adoption of the process.
Whining power comes from the fact that some individuals are well known squeaky wheels within the organization; they will object to any change. I will also argue that some whiners could be your best critique, if you can mute the extra noise in their suggestions or figure out solutions to the problems they foresee. The whiners cannot be ignored, and they cannot be satisfied. You can, though, give them an opportunity to whine early on, so when you launch the process there will not be much disruption from whiners.
Frameworks can only take you so far
Lastly, there are plenty of process improvement frameworks (PDCA, Lean Management, Lean Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Agile Management, Just-In-Time etc) available to choose from. When choosing these frameworks consider which frameworks will be best suited for your organization’s size and culture. A process management framework will provide you with the structured approach for changes you want to bring in. However, framework can only take you so far in absence of consensus, support, and adoption from people.