Applying technology to an inefficient process will give you a net gain of zero. Throwing technology at a problem without first looking at the process will rarely ever fix it. In fact, it may likely exacerbate the problem by adding another layer of complexity to existing process challenges.
A great misconception about technology is that it is a quick fix for everything – a Band Aid of sorts. Often, leaders uncover a problem in their company and immediately seek to solve it with technology rather than examining their process first.
For example, leaders frequently realize their firms are missing billing opportunities. As a solution, many opt for more sophisticated software only to discover that the cause of the problem is process-related. There is a break in the process by which staff captures billable time and events. In this case, the most effective solution would have been to refine the process.
Leaders invest money in technology to improve their business. Yet, if they don’t begin by addressing the root of their problems, the result is no different than throwing good money after bad. They must begin by addressing their process challenges. Then, they must look to their technology to play a supporting role.
How to Tackle Process Challenges
To quote William Deming, “85% of a worker’s effectiveness is determined by the system he works within, only 15% by his own skill”. Hence, in addressing operational challenges, leaders should first seek to determine if their process is effective and efficient.
Process improvement can seem like a scary notion. The secret to success is to keep it simple and methodical. We’ve examined complex, yet popular, business management philosophies and have found that by extracting basic methodologies, and applying them, a straightforward formula for improving a business process can be established.
Define the Problem.
The first step to solving any problem is awareness. It is identifying what the problem is. Leaders can’t fix what they are unaware of. Talking to staff raises awareness. They are the ones doing the work. Getting a team together and including everyone who plays a role in the process is crucial to success of any process improvement initiative.
Often times, during an improvement initiative, a leader discovers that his perception of the problem differs from reality; that his understanding of the problem is not aligned with the challenges faced by his staff. He may believe, for example, that the process used by his office for matter intake is efficient. He may uncover that, in reality, by making the process paperless and supporting it with the right technology, he can reduce the costs associated with that process by 50%.
Measure the Problem.
Once the problem is defined, it must be measured. This involves observing what staff does and documenting it. It involves understanding the “why” behind everything they do. It is not uncommon for leaders to discover that staff does things simply because that’s the way they’ve always done it. In improving the process, changing that entrenched mentality is half the battle. Creating a cultural shift that embraces change is integral to process refinement.
A fundamental component of measuring the problem is identifying wasted resources. Signs of waste include mistakes that cause re-work, piles of files sitting on the floor or on desks, and long processing times. Waste leads to unnecessary costs and decreased profitability. Leaders can leverage their technology to eliminate waste. Paperless solutions are a perfect example of how technology can support a good process. Having sound process drives the work, while using the right technology allows leaders to do that work within a paperless environment.
Analyze the Problem.
The next step is to analyze what has been measured or observed. Flowcharts are an ideal analytical tool for this. The process should be mapped out so that waste can be identified and eliminated. Sometimes, simple changes that lead to a quick return on investment can be made. For example, emailing rather than mailing or faxing is a simple but effective way to cut costs.
Perhaps, the changes may be greater. There may be cases where frequent mistakes are made causing the need for re-work. Re-work is a form of waste. A client does not pay for a re-do work. The cost of re-work comes out of firm’s pocket, and thus diminishes the profit margin. Technology can be leveraged to help avoid mistakes in a process. The use of pop-up windows is a perfect example of how technology can support your process by alerting staff to possible mistakes.
Implement the Solution.
Once the best solution has been identified, it must be implemented. One of the most important points to remember about implementation is training. Staff must be trained on any changes made to the process and to the technology. In order to properly train staff, the new changes must be documented in the form of Standard Operating Procedures. Not only will this serve as a method of standardizing practices within the firm, it serves as a reference for existing and future staff.
Measure the Improvements.
Now that the best solution has been implemented, process improvements must be measured. The key to measuring the new process is to implement metrics. For example, if changes were made to the billing process to capture more billing opportunities, metrics should be implemented that track the new billable amounts. How much is being billed now in comparison with last month? The only way to confirm that improvements are working is to quantify the change. Metrics are fundamental to tracking return on investment.
Good Technology vs. Right Technology
When leaders consider which technology they should invest in, one of the most important questions they should ask themselves is “Does this technology support the way I do business? Does it support my process?” Just because technology is good does not make it the right technology for the way a particular leader do business. Leaders should choose the technology that best supports their process.
In reality, not every leader is in the market for new technology. Frequently, the solution lies in the existing system. Sometimes, it can be as simple as making changes to existing technology so that it begins to support the firm’s process. It is about turning existing technology into the right technology.
Each company has its own individual formula for achieving success. They hire the best leaders and the best staff; they buy the best equipment and the best technology. In order for leaders to take their practices to the next level, they must also remember to include good process and the right technology in their formula, and leverage the relationship between the two. By addressing their process challenges and making the right changes in their technology so that it supports the way they do business, leaders can achieve greater efficiency and accuracy, which ultimately means a healthier bottom line.