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The 5 Key Skills of
Continuous Business Process Improvement
When people talk about innovation, the focus is often on their products and services—in other words, the customer-facing side of the equation. Just as important, though, are innovations at the process level within your company.
Process improvement means identifying and addressing weaknesses in your current practices and standards on an ongoing basis. You might also hear this called business process re-engineering or business process management. Whatever it’s called, the end goal is the same: streamlining the way you do your work to make it more efficient and reduce waste and errors.
Why Is Continuous Improvement Important?
Things change quickly in today’s world. A company that has a mindset of continuous growth and innovation will be able to keep up with those changes better than one stuck using the tried-and-true methods of the past.
Here’s an analogy that might help put that in perspective. Imagine you’re in a car merging onto a busy highway. Which would you rather have: an on-ramp that lets you increase your speed gradually, or a stop sign that forces you to accelerate from 0 to 60mph as fast as possible?
By implementing a practice of continuous improvement in your business, you spare yourself the need to go from 0 to 60 when there’s a shift in the market. You’re already used to making gradual changes and have forward momentum on your side. Once you develop this as a habit, each subsequent change will be easier and more efficient than the last.
What does it take to achieve continuous improvement in a business environment? Here are 5 key skills you should focus on developing.
#1: Process analysis.
Before you can improve your business processes, you need to identify what’s working and what’s not (or what could be working better). All too often, businesses fall back on habit or tradition when establishing their processes, rather than looking for ways those standard practices can be improved to better suit their specific needs.
It takes a lot of time and effort to implement process changes—one reason more companies don’t do it more. Effective analysis of your current practices lets you target your efforts to specific areas that need improvement, rather than just implementing changes and hoping for the best. As a result, they’re more likely to be effective.
Process analysis doesn’t have to be lengthy and time consuming. Start by identifying the main source of mistakes, bottlenecks, or other problems in your company. Next, identify the most likely causes of those issues, and which changes could eliminate them.
Take the process innovation at Joe’s Gaming & Electronics as an example. As a cell phone repair business, organization is imperative at Joe’s, and it can take a while for new employees to learn the system. Owner Joe Pilot addressed this problem by putting QR codes throughout the shop. When an employee scans the code, a video pops up on their phone that shows them how to properly use the station in question. This cuts down both on mistakes and time spent in training.
Many problems have simple solutions like this one. Once you’re able to pinpoint the specific causes of your issues, those solutions will present themselves.
Effective process improvement often means finding innovative new approaches to common workplace problems. Collaborating to come up with these improvements gives you a broader base of knowledge to draw from, as well as a range of perspectives that can let you see the problem in a different way.
All too often, a single thought leader is responsible for coming up with process improvements. This kind of singular vision is great for consistency and allows for decisive, quick actions, but it’s ultimately limiting when your goal is continuous growth.
Collaboration also allows leaders to better identify problems in the organization. There may be issues plaguing workers at lower levels of the hierarchy that those in the executive level are completely unaware of. By coming together and sharing ideas, you can form a more holistic picture of the team’s needs and goals and find process improvements that benefit the entire company.
#3: Strategic planning.
You may have heard it said that proper planning prevents poor performance. This is just as true in process improvement as every other aspect of business. If you don’t prepare your team for the change and effectively guide them through implementation, you’re setting yourself up to fail. At best, you’re in for a few rocky weeks. At worst, it could result in scrapping the changes (and an aversion to trying new things in the future).
The planning stage is when you turn your ideas and vision into an actionable set of steps. This starts with strong strategic thinking skills, breaking down the implementation process into achievable steps with clear end goals and a timeline for completion.
Process analysis plays a role here, as well. As you’re planning, you can identify potential problems you may encounter and how you’ll overcome them. The better organized you are when you make process changes, the better you’ll be able to navigate the process successfully.
Even with extensive planning and preparation, you may encounter roadblocks to process improvement that you didn’t anticipate. Alternatively, you could find that the change you made had some unanticipated results or consequences. When this happens, successful companies are able to shift course quickly.
The plans you make in your business are useful tools. They help keep you on track and guide your growth, providing a roadmap toward success. But they should never be held so rigidly that they’re an impediment to reaching your goals.
Lack of adaptability is one of the main reasons businesses fail. In many cases, it’s a failure to respond to external factors, like a shift in the market or customer base. Overly rigid process planning can be a problem too, though, especially if it makes you unresponsive to employee issues.
People often talk about adaptability as though it’s a personality trait, and while some people are naturally more flexible than others, it is a skill that can be developed. The more adaptable you are as a business owner, the better you’ll be able to lead your company toward continuous growth.
#5: Self-reflection and feedback.
The goal of continuous improvement is to make everything you do as a company better—and that includes the way you implement process changes. Soliciting and reflecting on employee feedback lets you see what worked, what didn’t, and where you can do better the next time around.
Getting useful feedback means first knowing which questions to ask and how to ask them. Part of this is learning how to strike the right balance of specificity. Questions need to be open-ended enough it encourages employees to elaborate on their answers, but not so vague that they don’t address the specific issues you’re concerned about.
There’s also an element of employee trust involved here. The staff needs to feel comfortable sharing criticisms with management for you to get a truly honest, accurate picture of how well you’re implementing process changes.
When you finish implementing a process improvement plan, the first temptation is often to move on to the next challenge. While it is important to keep pushing forward, it’s worth the time it takes to reflect on and refine your process.
Building toward Better Business Processes
As you’ll quickly learn when you start working toward continuous improvement, the five key skills outlined above all support each other. More efficient and accurate process analysis allows you to better plan and prepare for the changes. Similarly, strengthening your team’s collaboration makes it easier to get feedback (and make proper use of the feedback you receive).
Ultimately, the goal should be to cultivate a growth mindset across your entire team. By integrating continuous improvement into your company culture, you’ll be able to implement changes more effectively and consistently throughout the organization.
About the Author
Jess Simms has been writing business content for several years. Her first-hand experience in management, hospitality, and food service informs her writing. Jess currently contributes to the UpFlip.com blog and is a ghostwriter for several other sites. She holds an MFA from Chatham University.