As an operational leader, I’m often surprised by how processes evolve (or fail to evolve) over time. Sometimes they evolve into a swift, agile cheetah. Sometimes they evolve into an ugly, slow-moving beast that devours all the resources in its path. And sometimes they don’t evolve at all, which in many cases is just as bad as the slow-moving beast. Even more surprising is how those executing the process can be intimidated to suggest or unaware of how to correct the negative or promote the positive evolution. Rarely is this task trap the fault of one person; rather, it’s more often the result of an overly bureaucratic corporate culture. In such cultures, employees think, “My training says to do step 1, then step 2, then step 3 and repeat. My manager says I have to do this at least 10 times per hour.” While meeting those expectations may satisfy the average manager, the business suffers because neither the process nor the employee ever improves. As leaders, we need our employees to meet specific objectives but we also want them to ask questions like, “what if doing step 3 before step 2 allows me to do it 14 times per hour instead of 10?” If your corporate culture doesn’t encourage this kind of questioning then your processes are likely more like the ugly, slow moving beast.
At SJV, we promote continuous process improvement using a few different approaches. First, we encourage employees at all levels to question our existing processes. While this seems basic, it’s one of the more difficult components to incorporate into a company’s culture because it requires genuine humility amongst leadership. Often the manager or supervisor who develops a process can’t always see the opportunities to make it better. They may be blinded by their own vision for the workflow. While they may be receptive to suggestions from their superior or their peers, their employees, the ones actually doing the job, may be intimidated to suggest improvements. To maximize process improvement, it’s imperative that all levels of the business feel safe to suggest ideas for improving processes. Additionally, it’s important that employees understand not all ideas can be implemented due to resource constraints but that doesn’t mean it’s a waste of time to submit them. Sometimes it can be discouraging for an employee to submit an idea that they think is great just to have it denied by an Ops or IT leader. We combat this by reminding our employees that if 1-in-100 ideas are brought to life then we are still improving.
Our second approach to process improvement is through regularly scheduled reevaluation of internal processes. At SJV, we pick 6 processes per quarter to evaluate and we break that down into 2 audits per month. The audits are conducted by our internal Project Manager, who spends a few hours over several days shadowing the employees most involved in the process. The PM observes the process and asks questions looking for any opportunities for improvement or optimization, either through technology or tweaks to the workflow. We also conduct regular audits of processes through our Quality Management System to ensure consistency in the execution of our processes. These audits also help us identify areas for process improvement. While not all companies can justify having a full-time employee dedicated to process improvement, the role can be delegated to any talented team member with an eye for process improvement. Better yet, it can be rotated between different employees for periods of time, giving them a chance to learn, take on a new challenge, and stand out.
This leads me to our next method for promoting continuous process improvement, which is through the continuous development of our employees. At SJV, we place a high value on employee education and development. All our managers and supervisors have an opportunity to work with a professional leadership development coach. We also have a program we call ‘SJV University’ where we have subject matter experts put together courses that we offer for our employees. They may be industry specific concepts or general development skills like public speaking and responsible investing. We also conduct quarterly ‘battle drills’ where we simulate major incidents and challenge our supervisors to resolve the situation and present their plans. While these educational efforts may not directly result in process improvement, we believe an educated staff is an engaged staff. In our experience, investing in our employees has always paid dividends.
I’ve highlighted a few of the ways we make continuous process improvement a part of our corporate culture at SJV. While we’re not naïve in thinking we’ve completely stalled the evolution of the slow-moving beast in every process, we are very proud of our improvement efforts. Even if you can’t incorporate the principles I’ve outlined above, just make sure you don’t settle for complacency in your corporate culture. Make sure you’re regularly asking yourself and your team the following questions: How can we do this task faster? How can we do this task with less people? How can we do more of this task with the same amount of people? These seemingly similar questions provide different angles for looking at capacity, efficiency, and ultimately cost savings. Whether shrinking or growing, I can’t think of a for-profit business where these concepts don’t apply.