The pandemic has been an exercise in agility for businesses around the world. They’ve had to pivot incredibly fast to support work from home and hybrid workforces, digitize their operations, power through supply chain disruptions and accommodate changing customer behaviors. 

As a result, the past year and a half has laid bare an insidious problem that stymies companies’ ability to adapt: process debt. 

Process debt is similar to its cousin, technical debt. It occurs when businesses operate with legacy processes that are suboptimal, leading to wasted time, money and productivity. Process debt hampers how cross-functional teams collaborate with each other, creating unnecessary friction and delays. If you’re being honest, you can probably think of a few examples at your own organization when you’ve had to jump through hoops to get a simple administrative task done, or spun your wheels looking for documentation only to learn the process is just tribal knowledge. 

Sometimes there are complete process silos. In a world where teams are working in sync from different locations and often with new teammates who have never set foot in the company’s office, this communication breakdown can have a devastating impact on productivity, customer and employee satisfaction and, ultimately, the bottom line. 

For example, imagine being a customer seeking a loan from a bank. You just want to get the money into your account at a good interest rate as quickly as possible. You’re paying fees for the process to go smoothly. If there are delays because different teams within the bank aren’t communicating or there are errors in paperwork on their end, your satisfaction as a customer goes way down, and you may move on to a competitor. Additionally, the salesperson who promised you a certain timeline has to make excuses for not delivering because of internal process hiccups, and is left frustrated and demoralized.

What causes process debt?

Process debt is a function of legacy. Processes that may have once worked as a short-term solution or when the company was in an earlier maturity stage continue to be passed down without examination — even when they’re no longer the best practice. This may go ignored within the organization, accompanied by a shoulder-shrugging “that’s the way it’s always been done.”

The pandemic has completely upended business as usual, presenting an opportunity to overhaul processes and bring them up to date, particularly as businesses heavily invest in technology projects and new digital tools. You need teams throughout the company to adopt these new tools and for these tools to play nice with each other. And that means optimizing foundational processes before you continue building on them. 

Fixing the problem

So how do you tackle process debt? 

  1. Acknowledge that process debt is a problem and that it exists within your organization. 
  2. Work with the appropriate subject matter experts at your company to identify the process pain points and what outcomes need to change. Talk to your employees in open conversations about inefficiencies and conduct NPS (net promoter score) surveys with customers to learn where they’re being impacted.
  3. Assign a dedicated process champion or create a center of excellence to coordinate the effort.
  4. Ensure that the process champion supports developing and implementing new processes for every function throughout the organization. You want to take an integrated approach to finding solutions; that’s the only way to really fix the underlying problem. Taking a fragmented approach will only create Band-Aids that won’t sustain your business in the future and might even make things worse. 
  5. Document your updated processes and treat them as living entities. They should be revisited and updated as technology, the market and your business environment evolve. 

Benefits of settling process debt

The thought of addressing process debt in the midst of so many other changes can feel overwhelming. I’m reminded of an image I once saw featuring a guy holding a crushingly heavy bag of rocks, unable to carry it. But when he decided to go back and forth carrying the rocks one by one, he was able to efficiently move all of the rocks. The moral? What seems like an insurmountable problem can be managed by breaking it down into steps. 

That’s what a process is — creating steps that enable your technology and your people to do their best work. It allows them to spend more time working on your business rather than in your business. Not only will this help increase money-earning opportunities, but it will reduce lack of engagement, anxiety and boredom among your employees. Since we’re currently in the middle of the Great Resignation, employees have the power to demand that companies value them and their time. Removing process roadblocks means they aren’t bogged down by meaningless work and are instead using their talents to add value. 

Connected to that, improved processes can also improve the quality of your services, which increases customer satisfaction and frees up employees to focus on solutions. 

The pandemic has forced leaders and strategic thinkers to step out of their comfort zones and gain a new perspective about their business. Now is the time to use that knowledge to make process updates that will help future-proof your business.

And while reducing process debt is paramount, organizations should always keep the “human interface” front and center. Even in the event of automation, the response and intervention of humans will always be critical.