In 1999, NASA’s Mars exploration program famously took a significant blow.
The probe that was supposed to analyze the Red Planet’s climate and terrain disintegrated upon entering Mars’ atmosphere, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of every space exploration geek and in NASA’s budget.
The total cost of the failure? Some $193.1 million.
Ironically enough, the probe’s demise was caused by nothing more than a discrepancy in measurement unit conversion that the Agency failed to account for.
This story is a perfect example of dysfunctional or inefficient processes within an organization — something that the Business Process Improvement (BPI) discipline aims to resolve.
However, BPI can benefit your company in various other ways apart from preventing embarrassing multi-million-dollar mistakes, and we’re about to explain how.
Table of Contents
What Is Business Process Improvement?
Business process improvement (BPI) is a strategic, analytical approach to business development that companies take to improve their workflow, operations and the overall efficiency of their internal processes.
The strategic and analytical nature of BPI is what helps define this approach and differentiate it from other operational optimization practices:
- BPI is strategic because it aims to make a lasting positive change to a company’s operations across different areas, be it human resources management, supply chain management, accounting processes or another aspect of business.
- BPI is analytical because it aims to perform an impartial, data-driven evaluation of a company’s processes and the tangible, quantifiable effect that these processes have on the company’s bottom line, client satisfaction and/or product quality.
In other words, business process improvement allows decision-makers within an organization to answer the following three-four questions:
- What are our current processes?
- How are these processes affecting the efficiency and performance of our business?
- How can we improve these processes?
- What impact would these improvements make on our business?
What Are The Most Common Business Process Improvement Methodologies?
One of the main purposes of BPI is to make a company’s operations more logical, organized, and efficient.
As such, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are several equally logical, organized, and efficient methodologies for business process improvement.
Here are the three most popular ones that you should know about.
Methodology #1: Six Sigma (6σ)
The Six Sigma methodology was created by Motorola engineer William B. Smith, Jr. Between 1979 and 1986 as an analytical tool to help Motorola improve and maintain the quality of their products.
Since then, it has also become closely associated with General Electric — one of the first adopters of this methodology.
Six Sigma is a data-driven methodology at its core. Even the name Six Sigma comes from the field of statistics, where the Greek letter sigma (σ) denotes the standard deviation.
More specifically, this methodology is inspired by statistical quality control — a field of statistics that aims to evaluate in quantifiable terms how efficient a certain process is.
Historically, the Six Sigma approach has been most commonly applied in quality control processes with the goal of achieving the 6σ level of quality, where for every 1 million products manufactured only 3.4 products have factory defects.
And if this number seems oddly specific, that’s because it comes from the statistics theory where only 3.4 out of 1 million random events happen outside of 6σ or six standard deviations.
We know what you’re thinking: what does all this math and statistical quality control theory have to do with BPI?
Ever since it was developed by Motorola, the Six Sigma methodology has developed into a more general and hands-on approach to process optimization.
However, its basic principle has remained the same — implementing statistical, data-driven improvements to processes with qualitative and quantitative benchmarks.
This principle is best expressed by the two most common Six Sigma processes: DMAIC and DMADV.
DMAIC stands for:
- Define the goals and drawbacks of your processes
- Measure their performance and efficiency
- Analyze the origins of their inefficiency
- Improve them by eliminating the origins of inefficiency
- Control them to prevent inefficient performance in the future
As the steps of the DMAIC approach suggest, it is typically used to refine and reoptimize existing processes within an organization.
The DMADV process, on the other hand, is most useful for establishing new processes, creating new products or launching new services. The acronym stands for:
- Define your goals for the new process
- Measure the potential risk and return of implementing your process
- Analyze your capabilities and the conditions for the process
- Design the process
- Verify the process’ feasibility and whether the result answers your goals and design considerations
Over the course of its evolution, the Six Sigma methodology has evolved into a more general management philosophy that emphasizes data-driven decision-making.
As such, it’s most suitable for businesses that possess or can procure a statistical insight into their operations or rely on statistical insight in their respective industries.
The best example is manufacturing — the industry where Six Sigma has been most favored historically.
Methodology #2: Total Quality Management (TQM)
Total Quality Management (TQM) most likely originated in the mid-1980s in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The inspiration for TQM’s conception was the booming Japanese manufacturing industry that quickly became known in North America and Europe for its strict quality control processes.
As such, TQM was created in an attempt to make American and European manufacturing businesses more competitive by improving the quality of their products.
Before it became widespread in the manufacturing sector, TQM was picked up and implemented by the US Federal Government organizations, the US Navy and the Department of Defense.
The principles and purpose of TQM in its modern state extend beyond quality control, however.
The main goal of TQM as a BPI approach is to involve all employees of an organization in a hands-on, long-term strategy to continuously improve the organization and its processes.
To deliver on its promise, TQM must be implemented following its key principles. The exact number of these principles depends on the interpretation of the TQM theory — some sources list as many as 12 and the genral consensus is eight.
However, the theory really boils down to three essential concepts:
- Employee empowerment: As stated in its mission, the goal of TQM is to involve all employees within an organization in continuous process improvement. However, this can only be achieved if the employees are empowered and inspired to participate in this process. Creating a culture of self-management, freedom of ideas and work ownership is what makes employee empowerment possible.
- Perpetual improvement: Just like any other BPI framework, implementing TQM without a tangible goal in mind would be a futile effort. However, what differentiates TQM from other methodologies is its focus on continuous, perpetual organization improvement. According to TQM, there is no such thing as an organization being too efficient. That’s why it’s important not to abandon your TQM strategy after your BPI goals have been met and to instead focus on finding creative ways to improve your processes even further.
- Focus on the customer: At its heart and due to its origins in consumer manufacturing, TQM is a customer-oriented methodology. And at the end of the day, it is the customer and the market who decide whether the processes within your organization are efficient enough. Inefficiency within an organization will always be reflected in the quality of its products or services. As a result, the improvements to your processes under a TQM strategy should be inspired by the goal of improving your customer satisfaction and loyalty.
Many contemporary scholars and managers consider Total Quality Management to be an outdated BPI methodology.
TQM reached its peak of popularity in the late ‘80s and the early ‘90s and was later eclipsed by Six Sigma, the ISO 9000 standards and other theories that it directly inspired.
Others, however, don’t share this opinion — and they’re not entirely wrong.
The brilliance of TQM lies in its versatility. Almost any customer-oriented organization can draw inspiration and gain valuable insights from TQM’s angle of process optimization.
Methodology #3: Lean Thinking
After exploring Total Quality Management, it only makes sense to discuss Lean Thinking — and TQM wouldn’t have existed without it.
Lean Thinking, also known as Lean Manufacturing, was first created as a term to describe the Toyota Production System (TPS) approach.
A little backstory: Toyota’s ingenious manufacturing philosophy is what empowered the company to become one of the leading automakers in the world.
TPS is a sophisticated framework that deserves a thorough exploration of its own. In a nutshell, it centers around one key principle — Just-in-Time manufacturing (JIT).
JIT means optimizing the manufacturing process to only produce the required amount of the required products at the required time to eliminate defects, overproduction and waste — hence the term “Lean.”
Even in its more recent and evolved form as a BPI, Lean Thinking preserves the same values as the philosophy first implemented by Toyota.
The goal of Lean Thinking is to combine the benefits of continuous BPI and valuable human resources to optimize an organization’s workflow and improve the quality of its products or services while eliminating waste and inefficiency.
Lean Thinking rests upon five key pillars:
- Value: The benefits and strengths of the business’ products or services as perceived by its customers.
- Value stream: The ways in which the business can create and deliver its products or services to its customers.
- Flow: The uninterrupted process of the business delivering value to its clients.
- Pull: Specific customer demand for a specific value (products or services) that the business should answer to — a manifestation of Just-in-Time manufacturing.
- Perfection: Meeting the customers’ demand with a product of the highest possible quality, lowest possible price and with minimal waste.
Just like the TQM methodology that it inspired, Lean Thinking is a customer-oriented BPI strategy: that is, all changes made to your operations under a Lean Thinking doctrine should prioritize customer satisfaction.
However, Lean Thinking takes this approach a step further with an emphasis on ruthlessly eliminating waste and inefficiency, as well as adjusting your output in real-time to answer customer demand.
Lean Thinking is probably the most radical and sophisticated BPI strategy you can implement as a business.
While the philosophy and theory behind it could benefit a business of any scale and industry, its practical application is best reserved for larger corporations that already have complex processes in place.
3 Benefits That Business Process Improvement Can Bring To Your Organization
The ways in which organizations can improve their business processes are not limited to the methodologies described above.
At the end of the day, the goal of each approach is similar — just like the benefits that BPI can bring to your organization.
Based on the theory and practice of BPI that we’ve explored up until now, let’s outline the five ways BPI can benefit your business:
1: Improved Customer Satisfaction
Customer satisfaction occupies a special place in the heart of every BPI strategy.
As a result, regardless of the approach, you take to streamlining your processes, you will likely enjoy a higher customer satisfaction rate as a result.
Just like the customer-focused TQM and Lean Thinking taught us, the efficiency or inefficiency of a business’ processes will always manifest to the business’ customers via its products or services.
Streamlining your processes will allow you to better understand your customers, along with their desires and concerns, and to adjust your offerings accordingly.
2: Improved Employee Satisfaction
Lean Thinking taught us to value people above everything else. That applies to your employees as much as it does to your customers.
Optimizing your processes in a way that elevates your employees from a simple workforce to stakeholders who are continuously engaged in improving your business will only have positive implications on your products or services, performance and employee satisfaction.
3: Improved Productivity And Performance
Lastly, let’s not forget the ultimate goal of any BPI strategy — to improve the business’ productivity and performance.
These improvements usually manifest themselves as reduced costs and downtime or increased cash flow — regardless of the approach you take.
A Modern-Day Business Process Improvement Tool: Mobile Forms
As BPI is all about improving efficiency and streamlining your processes, the tools you use to implement your Business Process Improvement strategy need to be equally as efficient.
This is especially relevant for methodologies such as Six Sigma, that heavily rely on collecting and analyzing statistical data.
However, without a certain degree of automation, this process — and all other steps of a BPI methodology that follow it — can end up taking a lot more time and resources than it really needs to.
Fortunately, there are many modern-day workflow optimization and automation tools that can help you considerably streamline data collection, analysis, management, and communication.
One such tool? Mobile forms — such as those provided by doForms.
Mobile forms allow you to automate data management within your organization.
They are an entirely digital, mobile device-friendly tool that can automatically collect your data in a secure cloud storage, interpret it and organize it according to your needs.
Additionally, mobile forms may also help you automate a wide range of processes within your organization, such as:
- Project progress tracking
- Customer relations management
- Supply chain management
- Equipment management and tracking
Mobile forms are also fully customizable and easily scalable according to your needs.
Check out this video to learn more about the customization capabilities of doForms.
5 Steps To Take When Implementing Business Process Improvement In Your Organization
As we’ve already discovered, improving your business processes can benefit your company in various ways.
The only point left for us to address is the steps you can take to implement Business Process Improvement in your company.
Of course, the exact course of action would depend on your chosen methodology. However, the general roadmap would like to look at this:
- Determine whether your processes need to be improved. Even though it can be beneficial to your business, BPI is no easy feat. It’s a procedure that requires thorough planning and considerable resources. Performing it just for the sake of it would be as inefficient as the processes you would supposedly be improving. So, before you go hacking away at your current operations, take a step back and determine whether your company truly needs those improvements.
- Determine what processes need to be improved. As we explored at the beginning of the article, inefficiency and poor workflow management can affect almost any area of your organization — from financials and manufacturing to customer service and human resources. So before you settle on your BPI strategy, you must determine what processes within your organization could be improved. This will help you choose a methodology and create an action plan to target those processes specifically, allocating the necessary time and resources.
- Choose a BPI methodology — or create your own plan: Now that you know exactly where your operations are underperforming, you can create an action plan that meets your needs and goals. Depending on the depth of the inefficiency, you might choose to scrap the affected processes and create new ones entirely using the Six Sigma DMADV approach or rehaul your operational philosophy completely in line with the Lean Thinking methodology.
- Implement your action plan of choice: Once all the prerequisites for your BPI strategy have been met, you can start putting it to work. To do that effectively, be sure to involve as many relevant members of your organization as possible in the process, thoroughly educate them on it and invite them to pass that knowledge down to other stakeholders. This way, you will be able to carry out the entire BPI strategy smoothly and effortlessly without interrupting your day-to-day operations.
- Assess the results and repeat the process if necessary: Once your process improvement plan has been carried out, take another step back and determine once again whether your processes need any more improvement. Of course, if you’re relying on one of the methodologies described above, this cycle can never really be complete. However, if you’ve managed to resolve the biggest causes of your operational inefficiency, you should allow your improvements to settle in and evaluate the outcome before repeating the process.
Process Improvement In Business Development: Takeaways
Business process improvement is a workflow optimization approach that every organization must consider the moment its internal processes start malfunctioning.
Even though in some cases it may result in significant and drastic changes to your business’ operations, the strategic, long-term benefits of Business Process Improvement far outweigh the initial complications that it may bring.
Fortunately, a tangible improvement to your processes can be achieved via different methodologies and unique strategies, depending on the best fit for your business.
You simply need to choose one that fits your goals — or create your own tailored approach from the ground up.