Like a mapping application on your phone, processes work best when they guide you to your destination without unnecessary delays and mistakes that cause you to retrace your steps. Similarly, processes should guide you onto a predefined alternative path when something unexpected happens.
To ensure that you are always on the best path, your phone will also perform regular progress checks to alert you to environmental changes such as weather, traffic, or accidents. Your processes need to have the similar checkpoints to control the flow, allowing you monitor how the process is performing and intervene as required to get things back on track.
In your processes, your enemies are bottlenecks, dead-ends, and leaks. These problems can be unanticipated short- or long-term issues such as changes to the resource pool, dead-ends where the process does not take into account a specific set of circumstances (technically known as a “forehead slap”), or a leak where the staff steps outside the process to take matters into their own hands to complete their tasks.
A bottleneck means that you have a shortage of key resources required to complete a step, or steps, in the process. Upstream from the bottleneck everything is backed up. Downstream from the bottleneck the staff is not efficient as work is flowing to them in drips rather than a steady flow, and they are simply not busy. The bottleneck could be long-term if you have underestimated the work required in these steps and not hired sufficient staff. Or, it could be short-term based on an illness, vacation, leave of absence or a competing high-priority project.
A dead-end is a situation when you did not anticipate an event or circumstance in your process design. Likely a corner-case and infrequent in their occurrence, a dead-end leaves the staff with no direction or clear path forward when they happen. The staff may throw their hands up and bubble the issue back up the management chain for resolution, which is likely acceptable but a waste of time, or they will make a decision on their own that they may or may not be qualified to make. The latter is problematic because the decision has a lower probability of being correct, and more importantly, that decision may be masked at the next step of the process as staff may assume it was made correctly and continue the process.
Similar to a dead-end, a leak is where staff is not restricted from venturing outside the process to either solve a problem or manipulate the process to a arrive at a conclusion that they desire. An example might be gathering or manipulating data from an unauthorized source in order a support a desired outcome. Or, possibly getting approval from an authority outside the process boundaries to side-step an issue or process step.
These types of issues; bottlenecks, dead-ends and leaks can lead to lost revenue, dissatisfied customers, poor-quality products and services, and stress for team members. Identifying and fixing them is absolutely vital to the success of your processes and to your business as a whole.
Real-time, or near real-time, identification of these issues is key. The best way to identify problems is to build controls, or checkpoints, into the process when you design it. And, in order to design in the necessary controls, you must know what the expected or desired outcome is from the process. For example, how long should the process take for each type of transaction it creates? If the overall process should take a certain number of days to complete, how long should each step take? If a step is taking too long, who needs to be alerted (escalation or informing the customer) and what needs to be done to get that specific transaction back on track? These controls must be metric based, designed to alert you when any given step in the process is taking too long to complete. The metrics must also give you information in a timely manner so issues can be addressed. It does no good to know that a metric was violated weeks or a month after it occurred.
If your processes do not have a “process” in place to self-measure and report, we recommend that you go back and review and redesign your processes and their associated tools or software systems to create the system you need. A solid metric-based system will not only guide your management and performance decisions, but it will give your staff clear guidance of what is expected of them and on how they are being measured.