Frameworks: What Good Improvement Programs Have in Common

Business process management (BPM) teams exist to help their organizations improve, whether the emphasis is customer retention, cycle time, employee satisfaction, efficiency, business growth, productivity, or any other goal. Yet BPM teams often struggle with creating a cohesive, data-driven approach to this imperative.

To show what’s at stake in the choice of improvement approach, APQC analyzed data from its How BPM Programs Stack Up survey to compare process improvement approaches and their relationship with different facets of process and improvement work (measures and controls, employee engagement, and benchmarking.)

The three types of improvement approaches are:

  1. Ad hoc: Improvements are inconsistently conducted on an ad hoc basis or in response to an issue arising.
  2. Scheduled: Improvement efforts occur during pre-determined, scheduled times throughout the year.
  3. Continuous: Ongoing improvement is engrained, and employees are empowered to identify opportunities in the flow of work.

While the research found that ad hoc approaches to process improvement are by far the most common (55%), continuous improvement culture and scheduled improvement approaches have better results and each shine in different areas.

Relationship with Process Measures

To ensure organizations focus on the most valuable improvements, process measures should reflect the purpose and projects of a program. Overall organizations tend to use a mix of value (e.g., customer satisfaction and impact on employee experience) and volume measures (e.g., number of trainings), particularly financial measures (e.g., revenue and cost savings) and project milestones.

Both scheduled and continuous improvement approaches focus on the value created for their customer—the organization’s employees. Consequently, both groups are significantly more likely to include the impact on the employee experience in their core program KPIs.

Measuring Process Performance

It’s not surprising that an organization’s process improvement approach and its measures are statistically linked. Unfortunately, measures for processes are often ad hoc, and loosely based on what’s easy to measure. What is interesting is that programs that rely on a scheduled improvement approach are more likely to have standardized measures, use a mix of measures, and directly link measures to performance outcomes. This makes sense, given that scheduled approaches typically rely on process owners or stewards to monitor and identify improvement opportunities methodically on a set cycle, ranges of acceptable variance, and often improvement goals.

Process Control Points

In addition to the types of measures used, the use of and stringency of control points also came up as significant in the analysis.

As the program’s process improvement approach matures, so does its application of control points. Organizations that take an ad hoc approach tend to keep control points within business unit silos. Scheduled improvement organizations tend to rely on regularly scheduled assessments to ensure that process teams can holistically manage process performance across the organization. However, the best use of control points tends to be leveraged by organizations with a culture of continuous improvement. These organizations use control points as part of their risk mitigation approach and include actions that address risk, which are triggered when processes move outside of the acceptable variation of the measures. This is where organizations move from the passive monitoring and reactive problem-solving stage to proactive contingency planning.

People Engagement

Continuous improvement models rely on an educated and empowered workforce, so programs with this approach as one would expect exhibit a robust approach to engaging employees in BPM work. While most organizations conduct some form of training and tapping into SMEs, organizations with a continuous improvement approach take engagement to the next level by training employees on the change. Continuous improvement organizations are also much more likely to engage employees through substantive (rather than check-the-box) change management approaches. For example, these organizations are more likely to leverage both formal and informal incentives for making the change (rather than only incentivizing management). They are also statistically more likely to incorporate adoption and change measures directly into performance plans, which further boosts incentivization and accountability.

Use Benchmarking

The biggest and most statistically significant difference between the groups is the use of benchmarking. Benchmarking is vitally important for providing the context for decisions about whether process improvements are necessary and whether there are new or different ways to execute processes.

More than half of organizations with an ad hoc process improvement approach (56 percent) do not benchmark at all. Consequently, these organizations struggle with objectively assessing process performance and tracking improvements toward a set quantitative goal or knowing how their performance measures up against competitors. It makes sense to see the highest use of internal (compares metrics and practices from different units, brands, departments, or programs within a single organization) and external (compares across industry peers and competitors) benchmarking among organizations with a culture of continuous improvement. These organizations are much more driven to look internally across business units and externally across peer organizations to understand performance comparatively and identify best practices and ways to optimize their processes.

Conclusion

Performance and improvement practices are inexorably linked. Strong and embedded process improvement efforts require organizations to:

  • consistently track process performance using measures that tie process work to business goals and KPIs;
  • use control points holistically, with triggers based on acceptable variance ranges, and tie proactive contingency plans to address them;
  • focus on people and enable them to make changes and adopt new behaviors; and
  • leverage benchmarking.

An ad hoc process improvement approach may be better than no approach at all, but simply does not fare as well as scheduled or continuous improvement approaches. Taking a structured and methodical approach to process improvement, whether via scheduled or a continuous improvement culture, helps ensure that organizations are tracking measures that matter, manage process execution consistently, and empower employees to make changes.

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Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland

Holly Lyke-Ho-Gland is a research specialist at APQC, with over ten years of business research and consulting experience. Her focus has predominantly been on best practices in business processes, corporate strategy, and R&D. She can be reached via email at hlykehogland@apqc.org and on Twitter at @hlykehogland.
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