A CEO once asked me, "What is it going to take for us to be a Lean organization? Should we immerse the entire leadership team in Lean Six Sigma training? Should we build a black belt certification program? How can we get this message across the organization?" While all these questions are very valid and can certainly be addressed through training and certification in well-established and proven methodologies, it often starts with the mindset of simply wanting to change and improve.
Think about it: You are doing something today that takes 10 steps to complete. Is there an opportunity to get the number of those steps down to eight, or five? It goes without saying that that's how efficiencies are created. It's therefore also the kind of thinking that needs to be instilled first and foremost in any attempt at process improvement.
That may seem obvious. And, certainly, there exists a whole host of terms that are often used interchangeably to describe a perceived silver bullet to cost efficiency: business process improvement, re-engineering, continuous improvement. But what often goes undiscussed is the need not only for high levels of executive sponsorship and accountability but also for the organizational fortitude to make decisions that are often highly complex and sensitive in nature.
Take the example of a business process that spans the 'end-to-end' touching of multiple business units. While there are many successful and proven approaches that could be taken to address re-engineering efforts, the fundamental basics of identifying strong levels of executive sponsorship, ownership and accountability of the process—not to mention the sheer willingness to live with the change—are almost entirely downplayed.
This is true even though the need to improve business processes is sometimes highly publicized to the point of overstatement. Regardless, in order to manage expectations around the potential benefits of any process improvement undertaking, it is critical to consider (i) the motivation driving the change, (ii) how the benefits and associated results will be measured, (iii) whether the right stakeholders will be held accountable, and (iv) how the organization will measure adoption of the improvements.
Case for change
After all, the advent of COVID-19 has made change inevitable.
We have been forced to work remotely, leveraging digital platforms quite heavily. Our ability to respond quickly to consumer demands, market conditions and regulatory changes is of paramount concern. For example, the ability of businesses to quickly make use of government programs aimed at alleviating pandemic impacts has been challenging for those who are slow to adopt technology innovation.
As economies around the world continue to recover, organizations will be pressured to increase revenue and reduce operating costs. There will be increased scrutiny on expenses that are considered administrative and/or discretionary, such as travel, entertainment, etc.—the kinds of expenses that have always tended to underlie business development efforts. All of this will bring a greater emphasis on improvements to business process rather than investments in new technology, given tight financial constraints. Technology investment, in other words, will begin to evolve from transformational projects requiring significant capital investment to incremental business-as-usual improvements.
With increased competition both to retain customers and deepen their loyalty, organizations will also need to focus on empowering the workforce with higher-value activities that build long-term relationships. Meanwhile, organizations pressured to improve operational efficiency will continue to look beyond traditional boundaries and pursue mergers and acquisitions, partnerships, or joint ventures. This, in turn, will increase the need to support internal talent pools with changes to their work processes and automation tools that can drive value-added interactions with customers.
How, in other words, are organizations supposed to do all of this? Here's the framework I recommend:
- Understand: Start small, leveraging cross-functional teams to identify your top five value streams in their current state, all with an eye toward automation.
- Redesign: Develop future-state processes aimed not only at enhancing customer experience but also at simplifying execution.
- Align: Organize teams, with the right skills and talent, to support your processes in the most effective ways possible. Empower the automation team in particular to always be innovating.
- Automate: Leverage technology with automation capabilities to increase efficiency and speed and to reduce errors. This will mean reconfiguring existing platforms within the eco-system rather than programming new connections between systems, and also replicating solutions with standard building blocks rather than completely tailored and unique programs.
- Reallocate: Finally, focus employees on customer interaction and experience in ways that drive the business forward.
Using proven methodologies such as Lean Six Sigma will definitely benefit and accelerate the pace of automation specifically—and, ultimately, process efficiency and continuous improvement generally. You don't have to "recreate the wheel." Organizations that can learn, adapt, and iterate quickly will succeed, with the ultimate outcome of an increasingly frictionless and personalized experience for their customers.