Six Opportunities to Look for During Process Documentation
Unlocking Hidden Ways to Improve Speed, Lower Costs and Eliminate Headaches
Many processes seem very simple at first glance. We expect the workflow to be as easy as 1, 2, 3 and done. In reality, there is usually more complexity under the surface – especially if good process documentation is not available.
As my colleague, Steve Wall, says getting from Point A to Point B in business is usually more circuitous than a straight line. This could be due to handoff delays, bad inputs that cause rework, or many other factors that seem easily avoidable in hindsight. Process mapping and process documentation initiatives are the easiest ways to reveal and remove these twists and turns.
Orion has facilitated hundreds of process documentation projects over the last three decades. Many of these efforts focused on transformation or information technology projects but most organizations were simply trying to get a handle on operations and establish their own best practice processes. This blog addresses some common themes that emerge during documentation projects. They include:
- People Variation – The “same” process being executed using different methods.
- Customer Variation – The unintended Burger King syndrome.
- Sequential Processing – Siloed work that causes delays and slows cycle times.
- Unbalanced Work – A process undermined by the weakest link in the chain.
- Handoff Issues – Every department is doing great job but somehow…
- Bad Inputs – We built Band-Aids and workarounds rather than fix the root cause.
We hope you benefit from learning about these problems/opportunities. Or probletunities, as my colleague Susan Williams used to say. Special thanks to Bob Boehringer and Ralph Smith for providing some of the real-world examples I used in this blog.
Process Doc Opportunity #1: People Variation
Finding Your One True Process
There is an old joke that if you don’t like what you heard from the IRS, call back in 15 minutes and see if you get a better answer from a different representative.
Most organizations do not have the regulatory complexity that may cause output variation at the Internal Revenue Service but we frequently see different people executing the “same” process in different ways in all types of organizations. I do not mean stylistic differences like you pick up the phone with your left hand and I pick up the phone with my right hand or Representative 1 responds to email inquiries first and then voice messages whereas Representative 2 prefers to mix it up. I mean significant differences in workflow, methods or emphasis.
How does this happen? Partly, it’s just human nature. We instinctively want to improve the things we do. Can I find a quicker route to work? How can I be more consistent shooting free throws in basketball? Can we get the kids out to school with less chaos in the morning? At work, this typically means coming up with ad hoc ideas to deal with bad inputs or to alleviate specific customer complaints.
Different managers and different process performers will put their own spin on how work “should be done.” When a new employee comes along, they will learn a customized version of the work processes from their mentor. Within a couple of years, there can be numerous unofficial versions of any given work process. All are well-intended, but collectively they often undermine both your organization and its customers.
In the following fictitious example from a financial services organization, two customers contact the firm because they think there was an error in the interest calculation on their most recent statement. In each case, the Customer Service Rep creates a record in the CRM and sends a message to the testing department. Here is where things diverge.
Testing Rep 1 uses the standard process that requires multiple validations using the firm’s ERP system. Testing Rep 2 employs an Excel macro workaround she developed a few years earlier. On the maps below, you can see the critical process differences highlighted with starbursts. Map #2 has fewer steps for the Testing Rep. The Excel macro is “unauthorized.” (Note: This is surprisingly common in companies. Team members will often resist giving up their workarounds and special programs, even after a technology upgrade is implemented that would make the workaround obsolete.)
As a result of using the macro, Testing Rep 2 needs an additional inspection point. She can’t risk an error slipping through. She must also make manual entries into the ERP and manually contact the Customer Service Representative when the question is resolved. These manual operations may introduce errors or delays.
So, does that mean Testing Rep 1 is doing it “right” and Testing Rep 2 is wrong? Maybe. It is more likely that Testing Rep 2 and other colleagues have added value to the process in different ways over time. In environments with limited process management (i.e. most organizations), this added magic gets trapped in a less-than-optimal process flow and is not shared with other people who are executing their versions of the “same” process.
A collaborative process documentation project brings all that magic to the surface, while revealing inefficiencies and inconsistencies. By working together to create the “one true process,” your organization can establish its own best practices and base all future improvements on that agreed-upon standard.
Want to learn more? Check out Bob Boehringer’s video: Repeatable vs. Reproducible.
Process Doc Opportunity #2: Customer Variation
Overcoming the Unintended Burger King® Syndrome
The fast food restaurant Burger King is noted in marketing circles for its great and not-so-great advertising campaigns. Perhaps their most successful slogan was “Have it your way.” The value proposition in their battle against McDonald’s was simple: We will make your burger the way you like, not one-size-fits-all like the other guys.
Of course, in order to make that work, Burger King’s processes and kitchen layout were created to deliver customized burgers quickly. Unfortunately for many organizations that are customer-responsive, customer-specific activities are not planned as thoroughly. Ad hoc changes –some of which were intended to be one-time events– add complexity, cost and have a negative impact on overall customer satisfaction.
Orion has been fortunate to support process improvement and member satisfaction initiatives for multiple public pension agencies across the United States. A public pension agency manages retirement services for public employees like teachers, police officers, administrators, etc. These employees are the agencies’ members. The business environment is usually very member-focused, meaning staff will go the extra mile for their customers be they the members themselves or the departments (e.g. Police) the members work for.
Customer focus is certainly a worthy attribute… but it can go too far. On a process-by-process basis, introducing and maintaining many exceptions for individual customers can create a great drag on the system as a whole. Unless your processes are designed for mass customization (a la Burger King) then bad outcomes are likely. The next time the customer calls, a different representative may not know this customer’s special service workaround. That could make for an unhappy customer or a customer who insists on always having a representative of choice. If the special service becomes the standard operating procedure – regardless of whether most customers need this workaround – then time and cost will be added operations. It may also be a net negative for overall customer satisfaction.
The same goes for corporate clients. A common process among public pension agencies is called Service Purchase. In some circumstances, employees can “purchase” more service time thereby moving them closer to their retirement date. At one of Orion’s public pension clients, the agency had several variations of their Service Purchase process. To some extent, this was expected. Different employers (police, teachers, etc.) will often have different business rules. However, when we opened up the black box, there were 15 distinct variations of the Service Purchase process. These could involve different workflows, different IT systems, different validation steps, etc. The complexity made life difficult for staff and members… and added no benefit for the “corporate clients.”
It was an example of unintended “mass customization.” To solve the problem, the pension system created a “happy path” business process for Service Purchase, then added employer-specific business rules to individual steps as needed. For instance, if the teachers and police had different interest calculations, then that distinction only applied to a single process step. The changes greatly improved cycle time while reducing cost and rework.
In the moment, it may feel good to cater excessively to customer demands –to go the extra five miles– but in reality, sometimes the right thing to do is make sure you have it your way, not the various ways customers may demand.
Unintended mass customization or excessive customer-based variation is one of the most important – and often surprising – revelations from a process documentation project. You open the box on a process that “everyone” understands, multiple versions may pop out like that old spring snakes in a can toy. Cut down on that “customer variation” and performance will soar.
Burger King is a registered trademark of Burger King Corporation.
Process Doc Opportunity #3: Parallel vs. Sequential Processing
Reducing Cycle Time by Improving Teamwork and Coordination
The fastest relay team in the world can run 400 yards in less than 37 seconds. Four people running next to each other can run a collective 400 yards in less than 10 seconds.
Of course, the purpose of a relay race is for the team to run in sequence. In business, the goal is to deliver value to your customers as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. Sequential processing is bad for both business outcomes. Parallel processing, when possible, can save time and cost.
In 2020, the world got a giant example of sequential versus parallel processing: Operation Warp Speed. Traditional vaccine development takes a lot of time (5-10 years) and money ($500 million on average). Due to the low success rate of potential vaccines, pharmaceutical companies usually follow a linear sequence of steps, with long pauses for testing and data analysis.
During the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, it was clear the traditional process did not meet the needs of the global emergency. Here is an illustration of the Operation Warp Speed vaccine development process:
The work performed in each step was not reduced, though trial phases were combined. Certain steps were performed simultaneously with shorter breaks between steps. Pharmaceutical companies also prepped for manufacturing before vaccines were approved. This added to the financial risk for each potential vaccine project but given the number of “customers” to serve, it was a risk companies were willing to take.
Regardless of what you think of the post-emergency use of COVID-19 vaccines, Operation Warp Speed was a dramatic example of what is possible when you can move from sequential to parallel processing. In this case, the 5- to 10-year cycle was reduced to 1-2 years.
A more mundane example is the classic IBM Credit story. This is an extreme example of sequential processing driven by task specialization. Similar to a relay race, each “swim lane” performs a series of tasks before passing the baton to the next player in a different lane. This workflow is not necessarily bad but it is always an opportunity to reconsider process design.
In general, there are two ways to improve such a flow. IBM took the dramatic approach of reengineering. They leveraged information technology to enable the consolidation of several different job roles into a generalist position. (Figure 2.) In many cases, it is possible to enable some parallel processing by improving information sharing and streamlining inspection checkpoints. The results could look like Figure 3. In either case, cycle time and handoffs are reduced.
Excessive reliance on task specialization and sequential processing is an opportunity that “jumps off the process map” and is easy to explore during process documentation workshops. Optimizing workflow will help your team win the race!
Process Doc Opportunity #4: Fixing Unbalanced Work
Increasing Throughput by Helping the Weakest Link in the Value Chain
My all-time favorite process improvement video is Lucy in the Chocolate Factory. It teaches lessons about management style, training, and the risks associated with unbalanced workflow. It’s also a fun illustration of the theory of constraints.
If you do not have time to watch it, Lucy and her friend Ethel get a job in the wrapping department of a chocolate company. Their task is to take freshly made pieces of chocolate and wrap them in tissue paper. The chocolate rolls in on a conveyor belt from the kitchen and then rolls out to the packing room. Sounds simple enough, but…
Lucy and Ethel get no training but are forewarned “if one piece of candy gets past you, You’re Fired!” Things start off well, but as the pace of the conveyor belt quickens, havoc ensues. While it’s easy to see the ladies as ineffective employees, it’s clear by the end of the video that the kitchen turns out chocolate much faster than any two people could wrap it.
Suppose the sales department said, “We need more chocolate. Demand is higher than production.” Would it make any sense to invest money in new kitchen machinery that would produce even more candy? No, because the wrapping department still limits how much candy we can deliver to our customers. A faster machine would just make the process more unbalanced.
Orion ran into a similar – but less funny – situation in Dakota County, MN. Child support was an important process that made sure single parents received the financial resources they were due. The level of effectiveness was also critical because there were federally funded incentives to close a high percentage of cases.
The process sailed through all the swim lanes until it got to Legal. Not only was the Legal team’s work more complicated, but it was also dependent on the calendars of judges… something they could not control. The Legal department was the bottleneck. Dakota understood the Lucy-in-the-Chocolate-Factory management approach was not the answer. (“If one case is not closed on time, you’re fired!”) They needed to take the load off Legal.
One simple solution was to have clerks instead of lawyers show up in court for uncontested hearings. There was no legal mandate to have a lawyer if the case was uncontested, but they’d always done it that way. This allowed Dakota to add more capacity without adding more cost. It led to a greater level of success in their mission – getting financial resources to single parents. It also helped them qualify for an additional $1 million in support from the federal government.
When documenting processes, always try to find the bottleneck or the weak link in the chain from a capacity perspective. Eliminating that bottleneck is crucial to the effectiveness of any process improvement solution.
"I Love Lucy" is a trademark of CBS Broadcasting.
Process Doc Opportunity #5: Handoff Issues
Identifying Points Where Teamwork Fails
In business, a “handoff” occurs whenever the workflow, data or a work-in-progress passes between individuals, departments or external entities. On a cross-functional process map or swim lane chart, this occurs whenever the process flow (arrow) crosses a horizontal line.
As illustrated in Jordan Smith’s blog, the quintessential metaphor for a handoff failure is the dropped baton in a relay race. The dropped baton is a catastrophic failure from which no track team can recover during a competition.
Most handoff problems in business are not catastrophic. Indeed, they often go unnoticed by management. It could be as simple as work sitting in the proverbial inbox. Or data that needs to be reformatted due to different standards in adjoining departments. The latter example not only causes delays, but it opens up the possibility of errors during the unnecessary conversion.
In the example above, five handoffs are noted with red circles. For this Hiring Approval process, two of the handoffs proved critical. During the first handoff – when the line manager submitted a Request to Hire form to his executive – not understanding the executive’s decision criteria often led to insufficient justification. As a result, an important hire could be disapproved.
The second troublesome handoff was between the HR Manager and the Recruiter. The Recruiters supported multiple functional departments and were not given any sense of the relative urgency for each hire. Thus, the process could stall for weeks before the Recruiter began work to get resumes so the company can fill a critical position.
Bob Boehringer: Why Handoffs Fail (Vimeo)
Orion had one client that was rolling out a new software solution to its salesforce. This company sold and serviced Point of Purchase (POP) credit card devices, the ones you swipe or tap or insert your credit and debit cards into. Their primary customers were mom and pop independent convenience store owners.
The goals of the software investment were to:
- Eliminate the paperwork required for customer orders
- Eliminate rejected orders by ensuring all the requisite information was provided electronically
- Reduce the need for sales support staff
Clearly a win-win scenario that would make life easier for the customers and generate more revenue with fewer hassles for all parties. But…
Each store had a unique set of IT configuration requirements. Those requirements needed to be identified upfront so the POP devices would be properly configured before being shipped. If the device wasn’t properly configured, store owners would call customer service to complain that the new device did not work. Since the call center rep did not have eyes on the ground, figuring out what was wrong could be difficult and time-consuming.
Therefore, it was incumbent upon the sales staff to invest their time in gathering all the information required when they were closing the sale at each store. Over the years, this company developed a “sales driven” culture. The sales staff focused almost exclusively on sales and relied on support staff to clean up the details.
The new solution required a change in sales staff behavior, but sales management neither provided adequate training nor enforced the change in process due to their fear it would negatively impact sales. That resulted in a bad handoff between sales and the POP configuration team. The sales team continued to do a great job selling. The new software solution was technically a great success. However, due to this bad handoff, the new solution was rolled out with a dramatic “thud.”
The cost and time savings did not materialize. The need for the sales support staff was increased rather than diminished. The new software solution still had great promise, but that promise would not be realized until the handoff was fixed.
When analyzing a process map, each handoff is worthy of inspection. These are spots where performance improvement opportunities may be found. They are also good pulse points to monitor both operational performance and cross-functional team effectiveness.
Process Doc Opportunity #6: Bad Inputs
Seeing and Fixing “Garbage In” So Your Process Works as Intended
In order for a process to function as it was designed, as it was intended… it MUST be provided all the inputs it requires to be successful. The notion that “garage in” yields “garbage out” is not a new idea. But it is remarkable how often we have become so accepting of this very situation.
That is why Orion includes some level of systemic analysis in any process documentation or process improvement assignment. The analysis can be as simple as a SIPOC diagram or as complex as a full-on System Map. If your process is the black box in the middle of the business system, then we need to understand the quality of its inputs… lest we create a more efficient system of converting bad inputs into unacceptable outputs.
We often think of inputs as information or materials we receive from external suppliers. However, bad inputs from internal suppliers – such as upstream departments or management – can just as easily undermine a good business process.
In the diagram above, Department B and Department C both crunch numbers. The leaders of Department B make sure their staff members use methods and formats which best meet regulatory requirements. Department C uses time frames and formats that best meet customer needs. That requires non-value-added data conversions and sometimes leads to confusing or inaccurate reports. As a result, Department C deals with many customer complaints. However, the root cause of the problem is not within Department C’s processes; it lies in the upstream handoff from Department B.
The company can solve this problem in one of two ways:
- Create extra subroutines (and costs) within Department C to make sure the data conversions do not create customer problems.
- Fix the handoff – the root cause of the problem.
Too many companies choose option 1. Why? Because they focus on the procedure at hand but did not consider bad inputs that may be undermining the process.
One of Orion’s hospital clients was struggling with wait times for an MRI appointment. They could stretch multiple weeks, even though on paper there was more than enough machine capacity to meet patient demand. It is easy to get caught in the trap of focusing on what happens inside the Radiology Department. What can we do to increase patient throughput? Can we cut out some steps inside the room?
While the hospital was able to find minor improvements within Radiology, it turned out the delays were the result of a mixture of upstream input problems. One example: If you are taking an MRI of a small child then you need to use anesthesia because it’s highly unlikely a six-year-old will lie perfectly still for 20 minutes. However, if the Scheduling Department did not make it clear to the parents that their child should not eat for three hours before receiving anesthesia then Radiology gets a bad “input.”
In this case, there is a significant delay (and machine downtime) while we wait until the young patient can safely receive anesthesia. The hospital eliminated more than 80% of the scheduling delays by resolving this and other input issues.
Bob Boehringer: Cost of Bad Inputs (Vimeo)
One of the most challenging handoff failures Orion encountered was at a financial services company. The handoff was not between departments, but between the customer and the company. The financial services firm needed customer data to do its analysis and make proper investments. In this scenario, the customer was actually a key supplier.
However, multiple customers routinely submitted incomplete data or data that included figures from the wrong date range. Rather than “inconvenience” the customer, the firm tried different solutions over time. These included assigning staff to scrub the data, creating computer programs to identify and correct mistakes, and calling customer staff members to fill in the blanks.
None of these Band-Aids were completely effective… and they consumed both time and money, costs that were not passed along to all customers. The firm finally decided it had to impose a standard electronic format for customer data. Rather than inconvenience to customers, this led to better service, stronger relationships and a better profit margin.
Resolving input problems leads to better business process performance and can also improve cross-functional teamwork. So, before you dive into the black box and start mapping your process, create a SIPOC or System Map so that you understand how inputs are influencing the outputs your process creates.
To learn how to create a System Mapping, click here to consider Orion’s 45-minute webinar.
Documenting your business processes does more than create playbooks that show employees how work should be done. It’s an opportunity to improve performance by:
- Defining your One True Process – Establish your best practices by eliminating variation in how work gets done by your people.
- Eliminating rampant exceptions or unintended mass customization – Create the happy path for your core customers.
- Improving speed of execution by replacing sequential processing (the relay race) with parallel processing.
- Optimizing productivity by strengthening the weakest link in your chain and balancing capacity.
- Enhancing teamwork –and eliminating unnecessary delays– by fixing handoff problems.
- Reducing rework and hassles by stopping bad inputs (“garbage in”).