Is it time for a new kind of process expert?
Continuous improvement in the digital age
Continuous improvement is one of the cornerstones of process excellence. It mandates a sense of vigilance over business processes. You’re always looking for what doesn’t add value, striving for the most effective and efficient process. You ask: what does the customer require? What does the market need? How do my processes need to change to meet that need?
Aside from broken processes and poor practices, opportunities for improvement arise from three key shifts:
- Market shift
When the market needs change, processes need to adapt. Consumer behavior drives business practice by shifting customer expectations and buying decisions. When the market moves, businesses need to be agile enough to pivot with it.
- Procedural shift
Even the best-managed processes are impacted by outside influences. From suppliers changing their product makeup or procedures to changes in legislation or compliance requirements, business processes can come to an abrupt halt when the context they operate within shifts. Assessing the impact of these changes and devising appropriate responses is a key process challenge.
- Technological shift
Emerging technologies provide opportunities for greater efficiency and effectiveness on a regular basis. What was essential but laborious manual work at one point could become effortless through automation mere months later. New tools can allow organizations to focus on value-add activities rather than routine, repetitive tasks at every turn.
Technology and process: working together
While market and procedural shifts are the foundational drivers behind a lot of process improvement, it is the technological aspect that has come to the fore in recent years. Automation in its many forms has revolutionized many business processes, but the challenge facing many organizations now is to be ready for what comes next.
There’s no such thing as a perfect process, but at any given time, we assume that a process may be optimized to the fullest extent of the current technology and resources available. While you could experiment with minor improvements, there’s no significant value to be added by continuing to ‘tweak’ the procedure. This includes automations; introducing an automated aspect may create a leap forward in efficiency, even without any other procedural changes, that creates a new ‘plateau’ where the process will unlikely to evolve further.
However, when we look at the shape of that process from even a year ago, we can see significant change has occurred, and it’s reasonable to project that in a further 12 months, the evolution of technology will mean things look different again. Storage becomes cheaper. Systems become faster. Automation becomes smarter. Infrastructures intertwine and platforms become more communicative. All of these changes increase efficiency and reduce the time and cost of the process, even if only incrementally.
Regularly evaluate your toolkit
This necessitates a new kind of awareness for continuous improvement. There needs to be an active engagement with process technology to review the tools in use. The usual process ‘health checks’ need to incorporate a discussion of the technology that’s being leveraged, asking the question, "Is this working in the best way, and is it still the best tool?"
This is vital where processes have been automated to any extent. While automation tools are valuable enhancements, we can’t let them lull us into process complacency. We need to be asking how we could automate them better. What technologies exist that could increase the value to customers of our processes through improvement? Where is the critical point to retire a vendor product and transition to a new product for greater capability?
Time – and tech – waits for no one
Ten years ago, these improvement steps via automation were bigger and more dramatic as technology evolved more slowly, so there were greater gaps between emergent tools and what they could offer. Now the technological capabilities shift almost weekly and it is hard to keep up with the latest possibilities. If you ask around, very few people would be brave enough to offer any guarantees about what the market will be offering in 12 months’ time. It’s just developing too fast.
This evolution of technology is the emerging shape of continuous improvement. Unfortunately, it strikes at the weakest juncture of most process initiatives: the bridge between process excellence and IT.
It would be fair to say that most process excellence teams are not technically inclined. They’re analytical, business-minded people with an excellent grasp of lean, kaizen, or six sigma but have little interest in writing code. Their focus is on business outcomes and they typically don’t have an in-depth understanding of what the latest technology can do, or even what’s available. They may well be aware that there is still greater potential within an organization’s processes, but they have no frame of reference for what could unlock it.
Similarly, most IT people have a bleeding-edge insight into emerging technology but a limited grasp of the issues facing the line of business. While they can intuit system architecture and marry up disparate hardware and software platforms, they usually don’t understand the business implications of those capabilities or the real requirements faced by teams ‘on the shop floor’. In the past this has often led to expensive and unwieldy tech investments that have great potential but aren’t fit for purpose.
This creates a significant challenge in a context where we potentially have, for instance, hundreds of bots in a complex enterprise environment, and there are significant increases in the technology’s capabilities. What skillset is required in the process context to first recognize this, then capitalize on it? Who watches the technology developments with a business eye and looks for the next opportunity for improvements?
This is a role that doesn’t exist right now, but we need to consider whether it should.
An opportunity for a new role
Some have tried developing an Application Manager position, reporting to the project management office. But this has rarely been effective, because the scope and perspective of the role has remained narrow with a return to the technical emphasis and not enough business process understanding.
The person who stands between the worlds of process excellence and IT would be an individual who says, "I can see the capabilities of this emerging technology, I can see the business implications, and I can see where that creates an opportunity for us, so I am going to bring them together."
In most organizations there will be at least two roles involved, each looking at their own speciality and not communicating effectively with the other, or even being aware of what they should be considering. At best the IT side would be asking the line of business, "What do you want, and how could IT help?" And the process experts would be asking IT, "What do you have and how could we use it?"
This still falls short though, as it relies on each side of the equation knowing more about the other than they typically do. The expectations and questions would be bounded by the limits of their current understanding.
Technology is moving at a massive pace. The challenge we face is: who will look from a process standpoint at technology, and also consider process excellence with a technological perspective?
Perhaps it is time for the emergence of the Business Process Technologist, whose job it is to bring the line of business and IT together, who has a one-to-many connection within the business, with a finger on the pulse of technology and an eye on the business needs.