Are you and your team currently utilizing the Process Improvement Mindset? If not, that could be a real problem for your processes!
In this video, we define what a Process Improvement Mindset is, how to implement it with your team, and discuss a real-life example of what this approach and mindset look like in a real small business. Then, we’re going over three possible ways to respond to this scenario.
Understanding Process Improvement (or Continuous Improvement) as a Mindset
Once we understand what a process is, we’ve started to let process drive our business.
Maybe you’ve started documenting your first process, creating your first SOP, or creating your first routine. Now it’s time to start thinking about that sneaky topic of process improvement, which is also referred to as continuous improvement, or process iteration, or efficiency optimization. To summarize, process improvement (or continuous improvement) is the idea of taking your process and making it a bit better each time. There are a lot of different approaches to making a process better. There are also a lot of various tools for analysis that we can use to make it a bit better.
However, with so many “solutions,” there are really only two camps of process improvement.
2 Major Types of Process Improvement
The first primary type of process improvement is the “Pause and look at everything” approach. The second type is the “Let’s just fix a few things as we go.”
These are not the official terms for these two categories, but it’s an easy way to understand them and start to apply this mindset to our businesses.
When it comes to the “Pause and look at everything” approach, that’s a topic for another day. Yes, it is process improvement, but that’s usually a highly involved process, with many different methodologies.
When we talk about process improvement (especially for someone new or just getting started in the process world), we’ll focus on the second approach of “Let’s just fix a few things as we go.”
And we want your team to have this same mindset, if applicable when they look at your processes, SOPs, or equipment.
What We’ll Cover in this article
So what does “Let’s just fix a few things as we go” actually look like? We’re sharing
- a real-life ProcessDriven example of this approach and mindset.
- three possible ways to respond to this scenario based on the process improvement mindset.
What does it mean to improve a process? Let’s take a look at a concrete example of how a process improvement looks when we use the little by little approach.
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Example of a process that needs to be improved
We have a process at ProcessDriven to send a weekly newsletter.
Over the years, this process has gone through many hands, so it kept going through the rounds. Each time, someone would change something about the SOP.
We’ve chosen this example because one day, this process was delegated…again.
It reached a fifth person in the line of delegation. The new person, Sam, who was in charge of this process and had never worked at ProcessDriven before, picked up this process, and felt, “Alright, I’m going to do this. I’ve got it. I know exactly what I need to do. This SOP has been here. It’s very clear. Let’s go.”
However, there was a problem. There were specific steps where we used terms or made assumptions that the new person didn’t understand.
They didn’t know what we meant by “campaign” or “that great template” or whatever else was in the process. This is normal, especially when a process has been delegated between people who do have that context.
As a new team member, Sam didn’t understand the jargon. So, faced with this process with some ambiguity, she had three possible paths forward.
3 Ways to React to an Imperfect Process
Process is Gospel (Perfection Mindset)
If Sam believed the process was gospel, yet the process wasn’t clear to her, what could she do?
She’d most likely follow the process step by step. She’d assume she’s part of the problem wherever it wasn’t apparent because the process is perfect, in theory.
Therefore, she’s going to make an assumption. She’s going to guess on that confusing step, make a judgment call, do something, and then she’s going to hope that was the right guess.
The next time this process is delegated to somebody else, they will do the same thing.
Maybe that other person is confused about another step in this process. They’re also going to make assumptions, and then these layers of assumptions would stack on top of each other until we don’t recognize the process.
Now, why would we do this as an employee?
If the process is gospel, we are correct if we blindly follow it. That is the only path forward.
If there is a mistake, it’s the boss’s fault for not having the SOP exactly specify these details. We’ll do precisely what the process says.
To be clear, this is not a process improvement mindset.
People are Everything (People-Centric Mindset)
This second approach of “People are everything” is the most common one used in teams where there is no process.
With the “People are everything” mindset (again, not the same as process improvement), it’s all about personalities, skill, talent, and competitive nature.
With this mindset, if a team member, Mike, goes into a confusing process, he might go, “This isn’t clear. Huh? Okay…well, the last person that did this must have been an idiot. That’s it. They’re terrible. They’re terrible coworkers. They shouldn’t work here anymore. I’m glad I got this over so I can fix it because I am the best. Obviously.”
He looks at the process, sees the confusing areas, and is the person who’s supposed to fix them. He might change the process and write some notes, but most likely wouldn’t. Instead, he commits things to his memory. He would either decide or get information to make the process do what he needs it to.
Mike will do things the way he wants to, and he’ll think that he’s an all-star as long as he achieves the result and there are no mistakes.
If there were a mistake, he’d blame the last person who wrote the SOP and say, “Hey, Sam did a crappy job. She didn’t train me right. So that’s why something went wrong.”
Either way, there’s a person to blame or congratulate if something happens with this process.
The problem with this approach of people being the center of our business is people eventually leave.
If Mike has that competitive mindset of “everything comes down to people,” and he’s the only one who knows how to do this process, wouldn’t Mike want to look like a rock star and keep this SOP nice and vague, so he’s always needed?
There’s that temptation, especially if we’re going to be judged by the results of a process.
Here the incentive isn’t to help the collective. It’s to help yourself and, generally, be viewed as invaluable. That conflicts with the process-driven approach we’re trying to get to.
We’ve talked about two different mindsets when it comes to seeing a process that’s not quite perfect. In one case, we just blindly followed it. In the other case, we just ignored it to make ourselves look better or worse.
Neither of these is what we want for process improvement.
Process is Iterative (Process Improvement Mindset)
The third mindset is the opinion that process is iterative.
If we view process as a collective resource, as constantly changing and evolving, when we see a confusing SOP as the new owner of this process, we would view this as an opportunity to leave our mark to make the business a little bit better than we found it.
We would leave a comment because, in these instances, you’re able to edit your process. We would leave a comment and say something like, “Hey Sam, this doesn’t make sense. Do you mean ABC, or do you mean XYZ?”
We would try to solicit that information from our colleague, if possible, to fill in the gaps. If asking for help isn’t possible because that person left, isn’t employed anymore, or got hit by a bus, we would document our assumptions.
Let’s say there’s uncertainty around which email we need to send test emails to. Clarify that in a comment and maybe put an asterisk saying, “Hey Sam, I’m assuming this is correct. I’ll let you know if it’s not.”
Start modifying the process to at least document what assumptions we’re making and why.
Benefit #1: Documenting Assumptions
The beauty of this approach is if there is a mistake in the process, we know why. Since the assumptions are documented, our thoughts are written down.
Benefit #2: Blame the Process, Not the People
If there is a mistake, we don’t blame that individual. We should view this as a team effort. The process is a collective entity. It’s a contribution of many people who work together over the years in many businesses to make a process really hum.
So if the SOP is followed and the result isn’t getting what we expect, it’s not anyone’s fault, and it’s everybody’s collective fault.
It’s our responsibility to prevent this in the future and not freak out over whatever caused the mistake in the first place.
Benefit #3: Process is an investment that builds up
The most crucial benefit of this mindset is that the next time we delegate this process, and it goes from person five to person six, person six will benefit from the assumptions documented by person five (because they won’t have to make those same assumptions).
Rather than saying, “Send a test email,” by the time it reaches person six, it’ll say, “Send a test email to firstname.lastname@example.org,” and we’ll have those additional details accumulated from all the people before them in the comment section.
So, what IS a continuous improvement mindset?
What does it mean to have a continuous improvement mindset?
Simple. To view every process as something that’s up and coming. It’s a snowball of contributions from your team, tools, technology, equipment, and lessons learned the hard way and turning all of that into lessons that help your future self.
Hopefully, this helped you get a real-world example of process improvement, especially when it’s done little by little along the way.
The best improvements to a process are often minor, tiny details you can clarify that have a ripple effect downstream.
The other approach we mentioned initially, “Pause and look at everything,” is super important, but we don’t need to start at that scale. Most of us are never going to work at that scale.
Instead, if we focus on the details and make tiny tweaks, you’ll be amazed at what the effect is in the big picture. That’s one of the reasons why we talk about process as a bottom-up effort instead of a top-down one.
Until next time, enjoy the process.
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