In every stage of a business, there will be some processes as part of everyday operations. Some examples include the onboarding of a new customer, replying to customer support tickets, or interviewing candidates for a new position.
All processes, whether well defined and documented or just common knowledge, start small and simple and almost certainly end up huge and complicated. Drawing a parallel with the world of physics, processes obey the rule of inverted entropy: every process wants to transition from small and simple (low energy) to big and complex (high energy).
This transition will not happen overnight but with small distinctive steps that will eventually slow down the team’s performance. In most of those cases, the slowdown will not be attributed to the increasing complexity of one or more processes but to the high load of the team which will result in more hires and further performance degradation.
Apart from the obvious problems that a complex process has, taking more time to complete and requiring more resources, there is one more hidden in the background that poses an even bigger threat than a slowdown: teams with complex processes don’t scale. Onboarding a new member takes a huge amount of time and the more people you add the more managers are required to control the complexity.
So how does someone optimize a process? As a rule of thumb, expect a significant efficiency boost in any process optimization effort. In High output management, Andy Grove says:
This is called work simplification. To get leverage this way, you first need to create a flow chart of the production process as it exists. Every single step must be shown on it; no step should be omitted in order to pretty things up on paper. Second, count the number of steps in the flow chart so that you know how many you started with. Third, set a rough target for reduction of the number of steps. In the first round of work simplification, our experience shows that you can reasonably expect a 30 to 50 percent reduction”
Andy refers to production steps as in a factory but work simplification can be applied to any process. To keep your processes small and simple you need to do two things: don’t allow them to get complex and inspect them frequently to reduce the number of steps.
Both actions require asking the same questions either while introducing a new step or when inspecting a process to optimize it.
Process optimization is mostly about inspecting a process and eliminating all unnecessary steps or optimizing them if elimination is not possible. To identify those steps we need to take a look at the most common causes of process complexity which are described below.
Better safe than sorry
Some processes have a number of steps to ensure that nothing ever goes wrong. Say, for example, your support team has a process for handling customer requests of a certain type that is working fairly well. At some point, an angry customer reports a not so common case where your process failed in a way that it created a lot of frustration or actual damage. One or a few members of the team took a lot of heat and the customer eventually churned.
To avoid this happening again the manager of the team will add an extra step with additional checks to make sure the process is fail-safe. With time, a few of those not so common cases will translate to a number of additional steps being added to the process.
This is a classic especially for processes that have been around for a long time. A step was introduced to gather some extra information required by law but that law no longer exists. Because of the distance between those handling the process and those designing it the step will sit there for quite some time even though it’s no longer required.
It’s not so uncommon to find processes with steps that apply to only a specific attribute of the business but have no scope. An e-commerce platform, for example, may require specific handling of a certain category that will be introduced as a new step. That step, however, isn’t that critical to all other categories and could be easily scoped affecting only a small share of the team’s resources.
Every process that has more than a few steps will probably have dependencies between them. Signing up a new customer, for example, will require an up-front setup fee and probably a few other steps. That setup-fee step should be placed at the top and all other steps should be blocked until the customer has made the initial payment. In many cases, processes pack all steps interdependently resulting in extra work that goes wasted if that critical step is never completed.
Requiring various levels of authority
Processes may have steps that can’t be executed by the same individual and requires a different, usually higher, level of authority. People with authority are usually far less than the people executing tasks which results in a bottleneck.
This is probably the easiest one to address. Some steps are gradually degraded to something that can be automated or in other cases the technology required for automation just wasn’t there when the process was designed (e.g. checking the creditworthiness of an individual). Note that optimizing parts of the step but not the whole step will still increase efficiency.
Designing a process is equally important as maintaining it after it has been deployed. The most common cause of process inefficiency is lack of maintenance, it’s not uncommon to find processes that haven’t been inspected for years. Heavy load processes should be inspected every 3-6 months, while less frequent can be inspected in bigger intervals.