How to streamline business processes for high-growth – 5 key areas to unlock improvements
Early- and scale-stage businesses typically follow a less-than-scientific approach to optimizing their business processes. In the operations realm, it can be summarized thusly:
What do we need to do in order to provide our product or service, on-time and in full, with the ideal business outcome? That’s what we’re going to do.
It’s an oversimplification, but not far off from the feelings of many management teams in growth-stage companies: that business process optimization – in the traditional sense – is something for the established enterprise with the time and budget to invest in it.
But that too, is an oversimplification. And it warrants a deeper dive into what business process optimization is actually about, and why – as an early growth-stage company – you should absolutely care about it.
What is business process optimization?
Simply put, a business process is a sequence of actions or steps taken by your organization to accomplish a business objective.
Business process optimization (or “business process management”) is the act of reviewing and improving business processes to improve outcomes – effectively, figuring out how to do things easier, faster, cheaper, or better.
Indeed, there is a standard canon of business process best practices to abide by, enterprise-grade software for modeling and experimenting with processes, and a lineage of job titles with specific skill sets related to business processes tools and practices.
But the actual meat of business process optimization is much simpler than all of that.
The real benefits of business process optimization comes in just two parts:
- Knowing where to look for efficiency or performance gains in your processes, considering where you’ll need to be tomorrow
- Reviewing (and refining) core business processes on a regular, rolling basis
For operational teams in growth-stage businesses, you’ll need both of these parts in tandem if you intend to scale up your business operations and sustain growth.
In this article, we’re going to talk about the first part: knowing where to look to unlock the big gains.
5 key areas to unlock major process improvements
There’s a lot more to business process optimization than “streamlining”.
A streamlined process might be easier to look at, but that doesn’t tell you even 25% of the whole picture. There could still be massive waste in value, quality, or customer experience. The linearity of a “well-designed process” is of little actual relevance to a high-growth company.
Setting aside streamlining as an objective, a better and more pragmatic way of hacking your business processes is to analyze them along 5 critical process areas.
These areas represent the dimensions of a process, which – when looked at critically – can unearth the massive improvements that can flip an unscalable process to a scalable one.
1. Analyze the value chain (for high-growth)
Any traditional reading of business process management will start with value chain analysis.
But in the high-growth setting – and especially with internal operations processes – it doesn’t always make sense to break down each element of a process and scrutinize its value in terms of cost and profitability.
In high-growth, “value” is associated with the work that actually helps you to reach tomorrow’s goal. For these businesses, that’s usually sustainable growth and expansion.
The first thing to do in value chain analysis actually doesn’t involve your business processes at all. Like setting OKRs successfully, the first step is to identify the loftiest goals of your department, and align them with the overarching goals of your business.
Where do you need to be tomorrow, and what does that look like?
Only once you've answered that question can you begin to comb through your business processes and understand where value is created and where it isn’t.
Let’s make an example.
Suppose that you manage operations for a fast-growing delivery services business. And you absolutely want to grow your business and expand to new markets.
But you and your team have identified that the real picture of tomorrow needs to be the one where you are the market leader in customer experience. You know that in order to succeed for the long-term, all of your efforts need to roll up to market leading customer experience.
And that’s how you’ll measure value in your processes:
Does this activity help us get to market leading customer experience, or not?
Now you’re ready to start looking at your processes and deciding what you can afford to cut out of them.
2. Understand your bottlenecks
Bottlenecks are an easy candidate for big improvements.
They’re the tedious, sticking points in your processes that block momentum, and they’re usually very easy to spot. Founders and leaders often find themselves to be the biggest bottleneck in the organization.
Bottlenecks can pop up because of a lack of information, missing authority, not enough budget for a particular task, or technical inabilities on the part of a team member.
The good news is that once you spot a bottleneck, they can usually be resolved with a realignment of the process based on the “value” definition from above.
A good process automation tool can also help by automating approval steps, data collection, and many other bottleneck-causers, ensuring that teams have everything they need to get work done as soon as a task lands in their inbox.
3. Look into handoffs
If bottlenecks are the point in a process where the work stops, handoffs are the point where work gets completely screwed up.
Of course, there’s the “telephone effect” of critical work information going in one end of the process and coming out the other completely misconstrued. But that’s just one side of it.
The other side – an even greater efficiency killer – is the way in which multiple handoffs are communicated throughout a business process.
Let’s use another example.
Let’s say there’s a field sales campaign process that crosses Product, Marketing, Sales, and Customer Support.
Now imagine when the campaign is launched that Product hands off the campaign to Marketing using a project Trello board. Marketing makes a few iterations to the campaign, and in turn, hands over to Field Sales – but instead using Email and Slack, with PDF attachments.
Now Customer Support is responsible for handling customer inquiries regarding campaign details – where is their single source of truth? The email thread? The slack messages? The Trello board?
And how much time was and will be wasted for each of these teams when trying to acquire the correct information from different sources?
Handoffs in a nutshell – another prime candidate for improvement via automation.
4. Study the moments of truth
Going back to our first fictional case– the delivery services business – we know that customer experience is the top priority and driver of value for the organization.
For this company, the moments of truth in their customer-facing processes will be paramount.
Moments of truth are the process points where your customers will make critical impressions and decisions about your products and services. Customer support processes, delivery processes, and maintenance processes are a few of the most common.
Companies serious about customer experience need to shape their processes – and everything that goes into them – so that their moments of truth are as close to perfect as possible.
Take customer support operations: Two-thirds of customers (65% surveyed) say they have switched brands to a competitor after one bad experience. And once you’ve made that bad experience, it takes 12 positive customer experiences to make up for it.
Regardless of where your moments of truth lie, it’s your job to recognize if there are weaknesses in your processes that may be leading to dissatisfying moments for your customers.
5. Know your automation potential
For each of the core areas above (value, bottlenecks, handoffs, moments of truth) there is an underlying potential for automation.
In each of these areas are highly-repetitive tasks that can be automated quickly and affordably. These low-hanging fruits do not require any specialized framework or training to automate.
It starts by making a quick list of all your business processes, and scoring them on an automation range of 1 to 5, where “1” represents “manual coordination and no automation” and “5” represents “fully automated process”.
You can also use the process automation playbook and free template here.
Once you have all your processes listed and scored, you can see which processes have the highest potential for automation, and where – with minimal effort – you can use a process automation tool or simple integration to improve the process and get results fast.
Business process optimization – expedited
Of course, not every business process or task should be automated.
The value created in your business processes usually depends on highly-specialized tasks, focus, and creativity that requires your team’s best work.
Which is precisely why process areas like bottlenecks, handoffs, and repetitive tasks are where business processes can be optimized using process automation, to help teams apply themselves where it actually makes sense – where the value is created for your organization.
For fast-growing businesses, the 5 areas is a considerably less-scientific approach than traditional business process management practices. But when applied deliberately and consistently, it can produce astonishing results – really, really fast.
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