In today’s business world, organizations complete all kinds of operations using a set of sequential actions. These processes are the heartbeat of a company, ensuring every aspect of every department runs smoothly.
Because processes typically require the participation of many people, teams, and departments, they are prone to bottlenecks, confusion, and miscommunication. That’s why it’s vital to use process improvement to streamline how a business operates. No matter the success, profitability, or efficiency of an organization, there’s always room for improvement.
Process improvement — sometimes called business process improvement — is a system that involves identifying and evaluating an organization’s processes and working to reduce waste, improve outcomes, and find efficiencies.
However, before an organization can implement process improvement, it needs to ensure it actually has processes in place, notes Melany Rabideau, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Global Health Equity. She states that a process is a standard set of actions an organization can document, measure, and repeat.
Many organizations use leading methodologies like Lean, Six Sigma, and Kaizen for their process improvement efforts. While those can be helpful for most organizations, you can also follow improvement practices with an agnostic approach.
In this guide, we cover the importance of process improvement and how it relates to your business. Take a look at the chapter summaries for a quick overview of each section, then dive into each area for the actionable details you can apply to your organization.
- Signs you need to implement process improvement. Is your company dealing with frequent bottlenecks and not seeing the kind of ROI you’d like? Are both customers and employees frustrated with your organization? It’s likely time for some process improvement initiatives.
- The best process improvement tools, techniques, and methodologies. Six Sigma, Lean, Kaizen, 5S: There are so many different approaches to process improvement. How do you know which one is right for you? We look at several popular methodologies and offer questions you should ask yourself before choosing one.
- What is continuous process improvement? Should your organization stop after a round of process improvement, or is it better to keep going? We define continuous process improvement and how you can use the Kaizen method to apply this approach.
- How to implement business process improvement in your organization. The hardest part of process improvement is actually implementing the plan in your organization. We cover several strategies to ease implementation and ensure you see successful results.
- A glance at process improvement across industries. Process improvement approaches and goals for process improvement can differ from industry to industry. Take a look at some examples and see if you can apply any of these strategies to your business.
- Improving business processes with your employees’ help. An important part of process improvement is involving employees in the initiative, asking for their feedback, and implementing their ideas.
We’ll start with an overview of the signs that your business is in dire need of process improvement. Let’s go!
Signs you need to implement process improvement
No matter how successful your organization is at reaching its goals, there’s always room for improvement. In many cases, organizations need to optimize specific parts of their processes to reach business objectives like increased revenue, heightened profitability, and enhanced customer experience.
However, the process changes you need to make aren’t always obvious, and it can be confusing to figure out where you need improvement. Here are some telltale signs your organization may need to rework its processes.
One of the most obvious issues facing organizations is bottlenecks. Within the process workflow, a blockage or holdup of some sort reduces the speed of the entire operation.
Human or technological issues can often create bottlenecks. For example, if a time-off process requires manual approval from HR and HR doesn’t frequently check emails, the employee requesting time off may have to wait several days for an answer.
Similarly, if the organization is using the wrong communication tools, such as instant messaging, when they should be using a project management system, the bottleneck could occur because employees can’t find the right information at the right time.
Eric Taussig, founder and CEO of Prialto, a virtual assistant service, notes that if the bottleneck is due to decision-making, it’s worth considering whether the organization can automate it. Often, organizations can use an algorithm to denote whether employees can make their own decisions within a specific range of criteria.
Lack of ROI
In many organizations, the need for process improvement arises from an unimpressive ROI for specific business investments.
Say the marketing and sales department has invested in a customer relationship management tool to improve sales and customer engagement, but the organization isn’t seeing an increase in either metric. This lack of ROI may show that the team isn’t using the software correctly and needs help implementing revised processes.
High customer churn
When customers aren’t satisfied with your organization, they will move to a competitor that can better meet their needs. Streamlined processes ensure your business can help the customer with the specific promise you’ve made — such as saving time, making more money, or improving quality.
If your processes are inefficient, have gaps, and don’t lead to the result customers are seeking, your customers will likely begin to churn at an increased rate. Rabideau notes that you need to be a good listener to gather qualitative and quantitative feedback from customers. Asking for reviews or testimonials, or involving customers in a process improvement committee, are good ways to learn what they think.
Not only will you see signs of disappointment and dissatisfaction in your customers, but a lack of process improvement will also negatively affect your employees, notes Amy David, Ph.D., clinical associate professor at the Krannert School of Management.
If employees are constantly frustrated by the workplace, something likely needs to change. Employees want to excel in their roles and achieve their targets, but they won’t be able to meet goals if the company hasn’t optimized its processes and systems. This situation may ultimately affect their pay and rewards, as well as their confidence in their abilities.
Process improvement ensures that your employees have systems in place to achieve success at work, which then helps them feel satisfied with the company. David notes that employees need to feel safe to offer suggestions for process improvement instead of fearing they may be labeled as someone just making excuses or complaining too much.
The key to success in most organizations is effective communication. However, in some cases, communication may be siloed in departments or work groups.
The manufacturing department may not share critical information with the marketing department and vice versa, leading to major problems that affect multiple stakeholders like employees, customers, and investors. Process improvement can ensure there’s a single source of truth for the whole organization and that teams have a way to share knowledge.
Lack of actionable information
Data that’s incomplete, incorrect, or late can negatively affect how businesses make decisions. Without essential information at the ready, organizations may enter into new markets blindly or engage with a major account without knowledge of that account’s history.
These situations are a result of broken internal processes that are missing key steps to ensure the business has actionable information that’s correct and timely. Organizations that need process improvement often aren’t looking at the right information. They may be focusing too much on performance measures (such as revenue) instead of process measures (such as time or quality).
Organizational resistance to change
In some cases, a dire need for process improvement is evident in an organization’s fear of or resistance to change. The “we’ve always done it this way” approach is dominant in some companies, which can be a problematic cultural issue.
Process improvement is about constantly looking for ways to optimize workflows and systems, and avoiding change shows that the company’s processes may be archaic or stagnant.
We’ve explored some of the key signs that reveal an organization likely needs process improvement. Next, let’s look at different process improvement techniques that businesses can use.
The best process improvement tools, techniques, and methodologies
If your organization is dealing with common process-related issues such as bottlenecks, frustrated employees and customers, and lack of a clear ROI, it’s time to investigate how you can solve those problems.
Several process improvement tools, techniques, and methodologies are available to help organizations streamline their processes. Start by determining what you want to achieve, then use a proven process improvement system to help you get there.
Know your process improvement tools, techniques, and methodologies
Two of the most well-known process improvement approaches are Six Sigma and Kaizen, but they aren’t your only options. Here are several process improvement tools, techniques, and methodologies your organization can apply to streamline your processes:
- Six Sigma. Widely used in business, Six Sigma process improvement is designed to help find inconsistencies or defects in a process and deliver better products and services. Individuals can earn Six Sigma certification through various levels of belts (like karate).
- Kaizen. This approach is synonymous with continuous improvement and focuses on making continuous incremental improvements throughout the organization. While Toyota pioneered this approach, any industry or organization can apply it.
- Lean. This approach is all about cutting waste, as the name suggests. Any industry or organization can incorporate Lean, which involves looking at a process’s value stream to determine if the result adds value to the business. If that process doesn’t bring value, the business can relegate it as waste.
- Lean Six Sigma. This methodology is a combination of Lean and Six Sigma. Focusing on reducing waste and minimizing process defects, it’s a highly effective way to improve business processes in a variety of industries.
- 5S. Incorporated into both Kaizen and Lean methodologies, the 5S model represents five key steps: sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain. This approach is about consistency in and standardization of business processes.
- Agile management. Used primarily in software development and tech companies, Agile centers on responding to rapid changes through collaboration. Flexibility to adapt to change is key. The “fail fast” philosophy is imperative to Agile management.
- Total Quality Management (TQM). An older approach to process improvement, this method measures success by customer satisfaction. A business needs to strategically create all processes in this methodology.
- Theory of Constraints (TOC). Figuring out what’s holding the organization back from achieving specific goals is the core of this approach. Once the organization identifies the constraint, it can improve the processes related to that constraint.
How to determine the best process improvement technique for your business
While there are many different options, each process improvement methodology is designed to get to the heart of the problem and come up with a solution to streamline processes. If you’re not sure which process improvement approach to apply to your organization, be sure to consider these questions:
- Does the process improvement approach align with our business goals? For example, if your organization’s objectives are to improve profitability, then a system that reduces waste and improves efficiency may be a good choice. John Carter, principal at TCGen, advises organizations to think “inch wide, mile deep” when considering their goals for process improvement, meaning to focus on a small number of priorities.
- Is there room for creativity and critical thinking? Rabideau notes that one of the most important aspects of successful process improvement is the ability for employees to be creative and explore a wide range of ideas. If a process improvement method is constraining, the organization may not achieve its outcomes.
- Do we have internal expertise? Some process improvement systems have programs for employees to gain certifications and credentials. If your organization doesn’t already have internal expertise, determine if you can still apply the methodology. In some cases, you may need to hire external experts.
- Does the process improvement approach center on employees or leaders? If your organization values employee feedback and input, opt for a methodology like Lean or Kaizen that emphasizes involving everyone in the organization in the improvement effort.
- Is technology investment a necessary part of the approach? In some organizations, investing in process improvement software may not be possible. However, many approaches don’t require specialized software or tools.
- How long will it take to complete the process methodology improvement? Does the approach result in short-term wins or is it a long-term strategy? How long will it take your business to start seeing the results of your process improvement efforts? Carter notes that process improvement is most successful when organizations undertake it sequentially in small steps.
We’ve learned about some popular process improvement techniques and discussed how to decide which methodology may be best for your organization. Now, it’s time to explore the concept of continuous process improvement.
What is continuous process improvement?
Process improvement is not a one-time activity that your organization completes and then pushes aside. Instead, it’s an ongoing initiative that requires constant monitoring and iteration.
If an organization’s processes are static, they will begin to feel archaic within a few years. Industries change, markets change, customers change, and employees change. If your business isn’t changing along with them, you’ll likely run into process-related issues.
Continuous process improvement is a methodology that any organization can use to ensure it’s always working toward optimization.
Understanding continuous process improvement
Continuous process improvement is the constant improvement and iteration of business processes. As the name suggests, it involves always looking for ways to optimize processes within an organization, instead of making changes and remaining static or only revising processes if or when there are issues.
This approach involves monitoring and measuring processes, and finding ways to improve performance even when the company is doing well. Rabideau notes that continuous process improvement isn’t a once-a-year strategy initiative — it’s ingrained within the organization.
David explains that continuous process improvement involves empowering frontline employees to make small changes. Organizations need to have a culture of process improvement so employees feel safe and can make improvements without negative consequences. Some organizations even provide frontline employees with a small budget, often under $100 each, that they can use to improve processes for their role.
A common way of using continuous process improvement is through the PDCA model. This acronym stands for Plan, Do, Check, Act. It’s clear from this simple system that change is cyclical. Instead of stopping at “Do,” continuous process improvement involves checking the results of the process and then acting on them again to make further iterative improvements.
Taussig suggests building in a review for each process at a certain interval of time (such as quarterly or annually) to ensure it’s still providing value to the company.
Remember not to confuse the term continuous with continual when applying this approach. Continual refers to a frequent recurrence. However, there are breaks between each recurrence. Continuous means the improvements happen without any interruptions — there are no breaks between iterations in this approach.
Using Kaizen for continuous process improvement in the workplace
One of the best-known methods of continuous process improvement is Kaizen, which means “improvement” or “change for the better” in Japanese. This approach focuses on improvement in all aspects of life: personal, social, and work.
A key component of Kaizen in the workplace is that it involves everyone at every level of the organization — not just leadership — to ensure continuous process improvement.
Kaizen has five key principles:
- Know your customer. To provide the best possible experience for your customers, you need a deep understanding of who they are, what they want, and the problems they face.
- Let it flow. This principle refers to creating value while reducing waste in the organization. It is each employee’s responsibility to optimize processes that create value while eliminating wasteful or redundant processes.
- Go to gemba. In Kaizen, it’s important to follow the action and go where it’s happening (gemba refers to “the actual place” in Japanese). For example, leaders can’t just sit in their offices and expect to understand what’s occurring in the business. They need to visit the “shop floor” and interact with their employees.
- Empower people. Employees need systems, processes, tools, and resources to succeed in their roles. Part of Kaizen is ensuring employees have what they need to achieve business goals.
- Be transparent. Organizations need access to data to enact continuous process improvement. Leaders must ensure the goals for process improvement are tangible and measurable.
The principles of Kaizen are similar to other process improvement methodologies, such as Lean and Six Sigma. The key point to remember, regardless of which continuous process improvement methodology you use, is to keep it going. Process improvement needs to be entrenched in the fabric of the organization at a cultural level, notes Carter.
We’ve defined continuous process improvement and how you can apply it to the workplace by following the principles of the Kaizen approach. Now, let’s take a look at how you can implement process improvement methodologies in the workplace.
How to implement business process improvement in your organization
The most difficult part of process improvement in any organization is the actual implementation. While learning about different process improvement methodologies is a great start and a perfect way to figure out your plan, putting that plan into action can come with many challenges. Here are several tips to support business process improvement at your organization.
Develop a process improvement plan with clear goals
As with any organizational endeavor, it’s wise to start your implementation with a detailed plan and measurable goals. How do you write a process improvement plan? The first step is outlining what needs to change at your organization, followed by identifying the pain points your teams currently experience.
Be sure to gather feedback from your employees to understand the specific issues in your processes. Next, outline what the process redesign will look like and identify clear process improvement goals to measure the success of the new process. Your plan should also include a step for monitoring progress and performance, and making changes as needed.
Carter explains that organizations should home in on a few areas of focus instead of trying to accomplish too much at once. Identifying a small number of goals and working sequentially to achieve them is more effective than identifying several overarching goals that are hard to measure and achieve.
Focus on practical process improvement
For many organizations, implementing process improvement feels difficult because the methodologies are theoretical. While they appear to work well on paper, it’s hard to know if Lean or Six Sigma will apply to your organization’s specific challenges.
Practical process improvement is a tactical approach that organizations can try. As the name suggests, this methodology is straightforward and applicable to any organization at a practical level.
The core goal of the approach is to increase profits. Practical process improvement follows two paths to reach this goal: increasing cost savings by reducing waste and continuously improving processes and growing revenue through innovation and customer satisfaction.
Establish a process improvement team
Implementing process improvement without a dedicated team usually results in haphazard efforts by employees who already have too much on their plates.
To ensure your process improvement efforts succeed, it’s best to establish process improvement teams specifically responsible for the implementation. Be sure to gather a knowledgeable group of employees who are well-versed in process improvement best practices, as well as employees with a diverse range of thinking styles.
Ensure each team member has a defined role and set clear expectations for the goals the team needs to achieve. David explains that including frontline employees within process improvement and empowering them to make changes is a good way to increase employee engagement and reduce turnover.
Hire a process improvement consultant
While many organizations will have internal expertise in process improvement, others may not possess the skill set or capacity for employees to work as part of the process improvement team.
In this case, the best course of action is to hire a process improvement consultant to help the organization implement specific methodologies. Taussig notes that an outside perspective is always valuable because consultants can often pinpoint issues that aren’t obvious to anyone in the organization.
The role of the consultant can vary based on industry and organization, but the goals are to determine what kind of process improvement methodology the organization needs, create a plan of action, and implement the plan. Once the process improvement is underway, the consultant may help the organization monitor and review performance and make iterative changes as needed.
Carter explains that if an organization can’t hire an outside consultant, it’s important to identify an internal employee who can make process improvement a top priority — but not the only priority.
Learn from success stories in the field
When it comes to process improvement, it can be restricting to look only within your organization for inspiration. See what peers and competitors within the industry are doing to improve their processes.
Learning from the business process improvement examples of other organizations can help your business realize the potential in areas you may not have previously considered. For example, you may learn a new way of tracking and acting on customer complaints or a different method to train employees to increase organizational safety scores.
While implementing process improvement in your organization can be challenging, you can apply these strategies to make taking action easier. Next, let’s take a look at the way process improvement differs from industry to industry.
A glance at process improvement across industries
Every organization in the world, big or small, requires process improvement. For some organizations, process improvement is ingrained in the company culture. For others, it’s more of an extra step they have to take when processes start causing issues.
Many process improvement methodologies can be applied to multiple industries. While the basics of the process improvement systems remain the same regardless of industry, sometimes the goals and strategies can change based on industry-specific requirements.
Process improvement in manufacturing
Some of the most popular process improvement methodologies — such as Kaizen — were actually developed in the manufacturing sector. That’s no surprise because process improvement is a major component of this industry. Manufacturing process improvement can incorporate several different approaches, such as Kaizen, Lean, Six Sigma, 5S, and others.
Regardless of the approach you take, it’s vital to look at the different processes causing issues and find iterative ways of improvement. For example, if securing approval from vendors takes weeks or months, implementing a vendor approval process may speed things up. This process involves determining what vendors need to issue approvals and communicating details effectively with vendors and employees.
Process improvement in healthcare
While the goal in manufacturing is to streamline processes and reduce waste, the key goal in healthcare is to improve patient outcomes. You can achieve process improvement in healthcare using the principles of Lean to reduce wasteful practices while providing patients with the best care, combined with Six Sigma to focus on reducing variation, notes Rabideau.
Other goals of process improvement in healthcare include reducing medical errors and improving patient flow. A simple way to improve the patient experience involves optimizing the intake process.
Using technology to gather patient information can save patients time and improve the quality of data. Smart forms are a good choice in this industry because they can adapt based on patient responses, so patients only need to answer questions that pertain to them.
Process improvement in technology
Process improvement in software development has its own dynamics. Some organizations swear by the Agile approach while others prefer Six Sigma. Regardless of the technique, the main goal for most tech organizations is iterative development — making small, measurable changes in a sequential way.
Carter explains that focused improvements yield better results. It’s vital to a tech company’s success to constantly work toward creating software that their customers can use. Software organizations need to be able to create high-quality products while being incredibly adaptive to change.
Part of reaching these goals involves hiring the right people for the right roles. Streamlining a hiring process ensures a company doesn’t waste time and resources on recruitment and hiring.
Process improvement in retail
In retail, process improvement is about meeting customer needs as quickly as possible so the customer doesn’t go to a competitor. While providing high-quality products and services at the right price is key, satisfying customers also involves the customer experience.
How are customers greeted when they enter the store? How intuitive is the store website? Is returning or exchanging a product cumbersome for the customer? All of these engagements require detailed processes that are consistent, streamlined, and effective.
Process improvement in hospitality
Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma can be effective process improvement approaches in the hospitality industry. Since hospitality is a service-based industry, processes are closely connected to the customer experience.
If there is no clear process, hospitality companies may end up with increased wait times for customers, poor levels of service, and unhelpful employees. However, reducing wasteful processes and solving defective processes will improve not only the customer experience but also a business’s bottom line.
David notes that both the retail and hospitality industries have high employee turnover. Empowering frontline employees to use process improvement can provide better customer service while also reducing turnover and increasing employee engagement. Giving employees more autonomy and rewarding good ideas is key, David suggests.
We’ve explored how process improvement can enhance different industries and learned how goals differ from industry to industry. Last, let’s take a look at the role employees play in process improvement — and how organizations can best use this resource to create effective processes.
Improving business processes with your employees’ help
In many organizations, there’s a tendency to implement process improvement initiatives from the leadership team without any input from the workers on the ground floor. This practice often leads to further process-related issues and a lack of employee engagement.
The employees are the ones who take part in the day-to-day processes the organization is trying to improve. As a result, they will likely have tactical and actionable suggestions that the leadership team may not otherwise be aware of.
The key, notes Taussig, is to help employees take ownership of their processes. This way, if a process breaks down, they feel driven to fix it. Here are several ways you can involve employees in your process improvement initiatives.
Conduct employee interviews
The best way to collect employee input is through individual or group interviews. The organization’s leaders — or those on the process improvement team — can gather employees to discuss potential issues they see occurring regularly. The business can also gain valuable feedback from employees about its culture of innovation and its attitude toward change.
Process improvement interview questions may include, “Do you feel comfortable sharing process-related problems with your manager?” or “What is your most creative idea for improving processes in our organization?” “Why” is also a great introductory question to ask, notes Rabideau, because of the likelihood of eliciting additional questions and responses.
Distribute employee surveys
Sometimes, conducting interviews can be challenging due to time constraints. In this case, another option is to use online surveys to gain feedback from employees.
An employee improvement suggestion form is an efficient way to collect, organize, and review data from employees. Businesses can customize the form based on the kind of information they want to gather.
Implement employee feedback
While involving employees in the process improvement initiative is vital, it’s equally important to act on their feedback. Be sure to dedicate process improvement team resources to read employee feedback and determine which suggestions have merit.
One common issue employees often raise is a backlog of approvals. Technology solutions, such as Jotform, can help automate approval processes and workflows. There’s much greater buy-in from employees when they are part of the solution, Carter notes.
Reward employee efforts
A critical part of involving employees in process improvement is celebrating their work. If an employee provides a valuable suggestion, be sure to acknowledge their efforts publicly.
David says that rewarding employees for their process improvement suggestions is a great way to incentivize them and help them feel heard. Rewards can include promotions, salary increases, bonuses, merit increases, and sometimes, just praise. Employees value all of these elements and receiving them shows that the organization appreciates their work.
Any organization in any industry can implement process improvement. Whether you’re a large multinational corporation or a small business, process improvement can help your company save time and money while enhancing customer and employee experiences. Be sure to look for the signs that your company needs process improvement and explore the different tools and methodologies available.
Strive for a continuous improvement approach so your processes don’t appear archaic or stagnant. Investigate what other industries are doing to improve processes, and see if you can learn from your peers and competitors.
Involve employees in the process because they likely have innovative suggestions you haven’t considered. Remember that perfection is iterative, and no matter how successful your business, there’s always room for improvement.
Meet your process improvement guides
Amy David, Ph.D.
Amy David, Ph.D. is a clinical associate professor at the Krannert School of Management. She is the faculty director of the MS Global Supply Chain Management program and teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in the supply chain and operations management area. Previously, David worked as a logistics planning and process development manager for USG and a logistics analyst for Medline Industries.
Eric Taussig is the founder and CEO of Prialto. He speaks and writes about the future of work, the global workforce, and employee happiness issues. His ideas have been featured on National Public Radio and in publications like Forbes, HuffPost, Entrepreneur, and Inc.
John Carter is a widely respected expert on product development. He is an inventor of Bose
Noise Cancelling Headphones and designer of Apple’s New Product Process. As founder of
TCGen Inc., he has consulted for Abbott, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, HP, IBM, Mozilla, Roche, 3M,
and many other organizations.
Melany Rabideau, Ph.D. Melany Rabideau, Ph.D. serves as an assistant professor faculty member of the evidence-based Global Health Delivery Program at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda. Her professional background is in healthcare practice transformation by reversing underperforming operations through process design. She is also the author of a children’s book series that makes leadership lessons inviting to children.