Streamlined high-speed trains

Improving business processes for small and medium business

26 Aug'13

Although business process improvement is an essential undertaking for any business, I get a lot of blank stares when I talk to clients about it. The ability to streamline, adapt process to new technologies, standardise and automate are excellent ways for small and medium businesses to reduce cost, improve efficiency and performance, reduce errors, minimise waste and get people spending more time on important value-adding activities rather than repetitive, mundane tasks.

While these tips would suit any business, small and medium businesses especially can gain a lot by improving efficiencies, reducing costs and, most importantly to me, spending time doing real work rather than administration.

Where to start

The first thing you can start to do is identify if there are any immediate issues that can be fixed in processes and converted into quick wins. It may also be beneficial to model your business processes; if you choose to do so, it's probably best to start with processes that are key to your operations.

As an example for a business involved in producing and selling computer components online, start modelling processes related to supply chain including order taking, production of the components, managing inventory, billing, logistics, delivery and customer service.

It’s likely that these areas will give you process improvement opportunities that offer the ‘biggest bang for your buck’. Once you’ve tackled these areas you may want to look at your back-end processes like HR, IT, or Finance – processes that support your core business of producing and selling computer components.

Engage your staff

Make sure you engage all the different types of people who are involved with the business processes to capture the full story. Ensure you capture all the activities performed, how they are performed, who performs them, how long they take, what the current challenges are and how they feel the process could be improved. Capturing multiple perspectives from different people who interact with the process will give you a richer, more comprehensive result and will be especially helpful for you to identify any areas of process variation.

Create a visual model

A common, easy to use notation for modelling business processes is Business Process Modelling Notation (BPMN2.0). It’s relatively easy to interpret and there are there are plenty of excellent resources and tutorials on the internet to help you learn how to use BPMN2.0. For actually producing the models you can use tools like Microsoft Visio or Enterprise Architect.

Look for improvements

Once you’ve created a visual model, it’s often easy to identify areas in the process that can be improved. Look for repeated activities, redundant tasks, excessive handoffs, bottlenecks and instances where people perform process activities differently. Consider whether activities could be automated or outsourced, or if offering some training to employees could help them complete their activities more effectively (e.g. increase efficient, quality, consistency, adhere better to policy…).

Now you've got your laundry list of improvement opportunities, you can remodel your process to include the ‘new way of doing things’. This model can then be used with process stakeholders to communicate your proposed changes, help you prioritise your changes and act as input for planning implementation.

Next steps: continuous improvement

So you’ve improved the process—well done! But that’s not the end. Make sure you revisit the process regularly to review performance make tweaks and further improvements/changes as needed. Don’t underestimate that business change takes time – and remember to be supportive as employees adapt, learn what is expected and adopt new behaviours.


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