Processes for people, not just profit

How a focus on people can help drive an organizational culture of innovation and continuous process improvement

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As process cultures go, few are more famous than ‘the Toyota way’, an all-embracing philosophy that drove one of the world’s largest automobile makers to the forefront of their industry and manufacturing as a whole.

While Kaizen is the model that has been adopted and adapted across the globe to champion continuous improvement and the priority of processes, it is easy to overlook the other half of Toyota’s philosophy: respect people.

Process excellence can be excellent for your people too

People are at the core of organizational culture and the pursuit of process excellence should recognize and value it. Better processes eliminate waste, accelerate activities, alleviate monotonous tasks and increase customer satisfaction.

However, that is not all. A truly excellent process culture can enrich the working environment and empower staff to feel valued, challenged, and engaged.

Andy Dunn, co-founder and former CEO of online menswear retailer Bonobos, identifies the organizational context as a key part of the culture: “It is influenced by myriad things, including goals, feedback, promotions, compensation, physical space, how people organize outside of work, social norms, how people talk, whether debate is promoted or squelched, how conflict happens, how hard people work, what is celebrated and what is left unsaid.”

Clearly some of the activities mentioned by Dunn are governed by established business processes, while others are not. But the way in which processes are captured, managed, improved, and executed can still contribute to some of those aspects of the organization, thereby building culture.

Improvement and innovation

Everyone knows about the story of how the 3M Post-it® note came about. Organizations like 3M having great ideas bubbling up says something about their culture. People are given a platform to offer up new ideas, and encouraged to explore creative concepts. That can start by empowering them in something as simple as their everyday work.

While external consultants might have excellent insight into how certain tasks should be accomplished, the greatest authority on what gets done and what gets in the way is usually the person doing that task on a daily basis. They are the subject matter expert and process authority on the ground.

What happens when you ask your resident specialists how things can be improved, or invite them to point out the bottlenecks and breakdowns? When frontline and operational staff have an open invitation to review what gets done, how, and why, you open the door to innovation.

Once people feel empowered to offer suggestions, they will look for new ways to contribute. As they see their input being considered and valued, they will feel a sense of ownership that will promote greater engagement.

As teams begin to refine and improve processes they are part of, their attention will turn to other ways to improve the products, operations, and overall prospects of the business. Innovation becomes part of the way they operate.

Feedback and conversation

Far too many companies fly the continuous improvement flag, while their suggestion box is a bottomless abyss. Ideas are floated by brave souls at the coalface of the organization, and they are either shot down summarily or left to drift in limbo, unaddressed.

Nothing will close down creative thinking like the sense that no one is listening, and no one plans to.

However, if process improvements are visible and teams are actively engaged, that changes. It does not mean every idea is a good one, or every process is up for grabs. It simply means that ideas are recognized and responded to in open and honest conversation.

By acknowledging someone’s suggestion, staff know they are being heard. By exploring the thought behind it and investigating its potential, they know they are being listened to. When that happens in an open forum, connecting the process conversation with the practical procedure, teams can see that there is a place for feedback and value in giving it.

Open communication can foster better relationships across the business. If staff know they have a voice, they will be more confident about using it, and if they know they will be taken seriously, they will rise to the occasion. Creating a culture of open and honest communication that strives to make the company stronger for all can benefit everything from reviews and retrospectives to strategic planning.

Clarity and conformity

Good processes made better will benefit everyone. The made better part is important as, not every suggestion should be taken on board, and not every grass-roots practice should be adopted. Aside from safety and compliance requirements, ‘the way I have always done it’ is invariably not good enough.

Across any enterprise, there will be a myriad of ideas on how to execute essential activities and processes. While there needs to be freedom to explore alternatives and an atmosphere of open communication, there also needs to be a level-playing field to maintain order. Process variations can be the bane of any business, and the greater the degree of divergence, the greater the risk of breakdowns or costly non-compliance.

Keeping processes clear and uniform ensures everyone knows what is expected of them. Whether they are across teams, locations, products, or platforms, uniformity ensures that employees can act with confidence, secure in the recognized boundaries of a familiar task. Where new ideas and approaches come to light, they can be applied across the business to multiply the efficiencies, with the security of knowing they will fit.

Process improvement engenders a spirit of security in the tasks at hand. When people feel equipped to succeed, they are more likely to invest their energy in the activity. “I think I can do that” becomes “I know we can do this”, and the camaraderie and confidence build momentum toward the organization’s goals.

What starts with everyday processes can gather momentum to strategic initiatives, new projects and ongoing development. A reliable framework gives everyone the confidence to build.

Processes are for people

Business process management is not all about the bottom line. Just as most processes need people to execute them, they have an impact on those same people by shaping their work.

By developing a culture of process excellence, businesses can imbue their staff with a sense of ownership and engagement that encourages a great organizational culture beyond the way operations are handled. As confidence grows and people see that their part in the business is valued and meaningful, everybody wins.

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