The changing landscape of process excellence

Find out how process excellence practitioners can help organizations by breaking down silos and successfully integrating technologies such as process mining and RPA

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Andrew Spanyi

It was not that long ago that a black belt equipped with brown paper, some sticky notes and a small set of statistical tools could positively influence the performance of an organization. But the world has changed beyond the impact of the global pandemic on how we work, although many businesses were totally blindsided and had to adapt. During the past year, the limitation on face-to-face meetings and the accelerated development of technology has had a direct impact on the priorities of many businesses.

Simple and incremental improvements, while still necessary, are no longer sufficient. Thanks to the evolution of analytical methods such as customer experience management, techniques such as journey mapping and an explosion of new digital technologies such as process mining and robotic process automation (RPA), the landscape of process excellence has changed.

Take process mining, for example. Process mining software helps organizations capture information from enterprise systems such as SAP and provides detailed, data-driven information about process performance by examining event logs. It extracts data from logs and makes it possible to understand and measure the flow of actual processes. In other words, it allows for process analysis without much human intervention. Process mining has significant appeal to senior management in a coronavirus environment, because unlike define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) workshops which involve the opinions and biases of human beings, process mining is fact-based.

Process excellence professionals are at risk of being left behind. Those process excellence practitioners who persist in attempting to execute small projects within traditional departmental boundaries and without engaging digital technologies are probably in the highest risk category. In many organizations, the focus has advanced from identifying and removing defects and minimizing variation, to emphasizing customer experience enhancement and growth. Similarly, process excellence professionals who choose to emphasize solely on cost reduction – while ignoring customer experience enhancement and revenue generation – may find that their services will be much less in demand. There remain a few areas, however, where process excellence practitioners are well-positioned to make a major contribution and remain in demand.

Process excellence professionals have the skills to assist senior leadership teams in taking a high-level, enterprise view of value-creating processes. This is essential for organizations which recognize the importance of strategy in driving digital transformation. This requires a big picture view of performance for processes such as order-to-delivery and request-to-receipt. This view cannot just use generic labels such as in American Productivity and Quality Center’s (APQC) process classification framework. It needs to use company-specific terms that will be relevant to the senior leadership team and enable meaningful dialogue on cross-functional value creation. Remember that competitive tools such as process mining typically look at processes such as procure-to-pay and order-to-cash.

Process excellence practitioners can also assist in developing a high-level customer-driven process-based view central to being able to scale digital programs. For example, Forrester reported that while RPA is a valuable tool, scale is difficult with fewer than 10 bots employed in more than half of all RPA programs worldwide. The challenge in scaling RPA can be overcome by first establishing a high-level, end-to-end view instead of just applying RPA to small processes within the confines of departmental boundaries.

Process excellence professionals can also advocate that a successful digital initiative has to start with the customer, increasing the need to merge voice-of-the-customer research with customer journey mapping. This is sometimes easier said than done, as the teams responsible for customer experience deploy a different methodology than PEX professionals and also tend to sit elsewhere in the organization. The tendency of viewing one’s own method as the only way to solve problems is rampant. As the old adage states, “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. This applies not only to methodologies, but to technology vendors too. In spite of the rhetoric around hyperautomation and digital process automation (DPA), many RPA vendors promote their own approach and fail to integrate their offerings with process mining vendors and machine learning vendors. This is where process excellence professionals can provide the needed enterprise context to facilitate greater integration of tools.

In a recent Accenture survey of more than 1,500 global senior and C-level executives of industrial companies, a staggering 75 per cent of respondents said that different business functions are competing against each other instead of collaborating on digitization efforts. This is sobering evidence that many people still tend to think only about ways to improve their own small part of the business, where employees are reluctant to join forces and collaborate, or even communicate across departments.

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Breaking down silos is another area where process excellence practitioners can take the lead as they have deep experience in examining interdepartmental processes. It is well-known that such behavior leads to the same task being done redundantly and how the lack of communication across departmental boundaries leads to inconsistency in dealing with customers. Indeed, the so-called “silos problem” has become a major issue. As departments increasingly hoard information and data, data silos have become widespread. Silos stand in the way of transformation and slow digital acceleration in several areas.

When teams, data and digital tools are siloed, the result is lack of alignment and a disjointed digital experience for both customers and employees. It is time to advocate that old hierarchical command-and-control approaches are simply too slow to take advantage of opportunities to enhance customer experience. The current digital environment practically demands new managerial architectures that break down organizational silos and foster teamwork across the enterprise.

As many organizations do not have a strategy for cognitive technologies, process excellence practitioners have the potential to make a major contribution to the success of digital programs by creating the needed enterprise level context for executive dialogue, advocating collaboration, methodology and technology integration, and breaking down silos to facilitate strategy formulation and deploying digital tools at scale.