6 Obstacles to Process Improvement
“The cup is overflowing” cries the student as the master keeps pouring tea. “Like this cup, you are already full of ideas” replies the master calmly. “I cant put anything in it before you empty your cup.” Despite Hollywood’s caricature of this Zen episode, it has a profound message for business process analysis and improvement.
Let’s say you want to study the current process of liquidity management of a bank, or materials planning for a manufacturing or distribution entity. Approaching this assignment with your ‘cup full’ robs you of the chance to notice anything new. You miss the subtle variations in processes that invariably exist among organizations. And unless you examine the current situation thoroughly and understand why each step exists, the redesigned or re-engineered process is bound to be sub-optimal.
As for the outside world, you will be confronted by what you see. And what you see is primarily what you look at.
— Zen saying
Why do we so often fail to notice what is right in front of us? This myopia may have multiple causes. Here are six of them:
The foremost impediment, as the Zen Master points out, is going with a full cup.
Disregarding current employee’s ideas and opinions or not listening carefully enough to read between the lines.
Not knowing the influence of cognitive biases on us. A 2012 Psychological Bulletin article mentions “It is shown that noisy deviations in the memory-based information processes that convert objective evidence (observations) into subjective estimates (decisions) can produce …seemingly unrelated biases.” In plain English, this means that we tend to interpret what we see based on our ingrained biases. “Confirmation bias” for example, shows a tendency to search for or interpret information in a manner that confirms our preconceptions. The bad news is that there are more such cognitive biases. And the list keeps growing with new discoveries!
Going too fast during the study phase. Speed may be a good subject for Hollywood to come up with “Fast and Furious – Part 100.” But situations demanding keen observation and analysis demand slowing down. If you go too fast, you will be too furious with yourself later on!
In a business organized around functional areas, processes may cut across departments. Functional thinking instead of process orientation leads to failure.
Apart from your mind, you need keep on more thing open: your questions. Closed ended questions provide incomplete information, often tailor-made by your unconscious influences that make you frame the question that way in the first place. The interviewee will have little chance of bringing his perspectives out or even to add much to his simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. Moreover, he gets the impression that you do not care about his views.
Process study is not for testing hypotheses. It is an exploration, a journey of discovery and a search for actionable insights. Once you are aware of the above obstacles, you may realize other influences hampering your efforts as well. As you overcome these, you will generate what business process analysis and improvement is supposed to in the first place: value, buy-in and satisfaction.