Are inefficiencies in your business processes causing you headaches?

Understanding Process Challenges in Business

Process understanding across a business is not evenly distributed. This is never more apparent than when we work with business teams on process reviews. Asking questions of multiple people across different functional areas gives either (a) similar themed results, i.e. everyone has a similar idea of what’s going on and working/ not working, or (b) massive gaps in understanding and confusion around what is happening and who is doing it, i.e. no consistency in how things are explained.

One of the challenges with this is that senior leaders who have the power to put money, effort, and focus into addressing process issues have patchy or misguided understandings of what’s really going on.

Do You Have An ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ Problem?

One of my favourite stories when I think about processes, particularly the ones that don’t work, is the Hans Christian Anderson story about the emperor’s new clothes. The story goes something like this. Two deceitful tailors convince a vain emperor that their ‘fabric of dreams’ really exists (it is akin to vapourware).

The tailors have said that only the wise can actually see the fabric. No one is prepared to step in and speak the truth. All the emperors, aides, and courtiers are afraid to be called unwise. So the emperor ends up parading through town in his birthday suit! As he passes a child in the crowd, the child innocently blurts out that the emperor is wearing nothing! From the mouths of babes, they say!

It brings to mind, for me at least, an ancient saying that, in the beginner’s mind, there are many answers; in the expert’s mind, there are few.

As we get more attached to a way of being or a way of operating, we are less inclined to criticise it and more inclined to just accept it as others have. It’s the tyranny of wanting to fit in and not rock the boat. It can lead us to accept things that we, deep down, know are not right, not working, or just not OK.

Barriers to Critiquing Processes

The risk of looking foolish is hard to overcome. Perhaps our hesitation is due to past experiences where we’ve raised concerns about dysfunctional processes or practices that are no longer effective, only to find that they were not adequately addressed or resolved.

I think there are a few reasons. There are probably plenty more than just these.

  1. Potentially, someone has spoken up before; a risk was taken, and some brave soul pointed out the thing that didn’t work to someone who has the power or influence to make change. Maybe there was an initial agreement but then no follow-up action. No action equals feeling like that wasn’t worth the risk. When we feel like we haven’t been taken seriously or ignored, we stop sharing information.
  2. Those who have broken processes flagged with them don’t grasp the importance or urgency of the flag; it could be that it hasn’t been well explained or that this process is interconnected to other challenges (they nearly always are).
  3. And there is the avoidance of uncomfortable truths. No one really wants to face telling your emperor that he’s walking around naked. It’s a truly awkward conversation.

So everyone can see it, but nobody says anything. We all continue to avert our gaze from looking directly at the problem and busy ourselves talking about something else.

Understanding the Role of Psychological Safety

Amy Edmondson has done a heap of work studying psychological safety in the workplace. Specifically, how feelings of safety contribute to developing high-performing teams, this work is well-known but often incompletely referenced. People tend to focus on the “making people feel safe at work” part of the research and leave it at that.

This is a critical part of building great teams and having processes that work, I agree that when people feel able to contribute as their whole selves you get greater contributions from them. However, it is important to recognise that safety is not the only factor that contributes to high-performing teams. It is not enough in and of itself. It must be counterbalanced with a desire to commit to excellence.

Amy represents this in the following type of diagram: I find it a super helpful reference point.

Psychological Safety

So, how do we balance the pursuit of excellence with psychological safety to create a learning culture?

Documenting Processes Create a Common Understanding

When we engage with teams on change projects, processes are a great place to start. The question “Do you have documented processes?” is usually greeted with a sheepish kind of look and a half-shrug that implies “Yeah, kind of” or “We have something somewhere, but I’m not sure I can find it.”

We start out by documenting the processes. Then, we know what we are working with. Just the act of documenting processes creates the opportunity for conversations that people haven’t typically had. It is the documentation itself that forces people to either agree or not with how things are being portrayed and encoded in an organisation. Through documentation and through repeating back to a team what it is that they’re saying their processes are, we find places of disagreement or misunderstanding, or it doesn’t quite work that way, or that’s not how I thought it worked.

Documentation is a really fundamental part of improving processes. Once you’ve documented what’s currently going on, no matter how good, bad, or ugly it actually is, you’ve created some common ground about how we’re currently working. So, creating a document is not just documentation for its own sake; it’s really about building a common understanding of how we agree that we work.

Improving and Updating Processes

Once we’ve got this piece done, we can start to look at how we might remove or improve some of the processes that are no longer serving us or put into place additional checks and balances that are required to improve or smooth a process.

This is where an external party is helpful.

It’s hard to do this kind of work internally and not be attached to how the process currently is. An external party works a bit like a mirror. It helps people see something that is out of their direct gaze, the unknown unknowns if you are familiar with the Jahari window model.

Prompt questions to consider:

  • Can we smooth it out for a customer?
  • Can we automate it in some way that makes it more consistent or repeatable?
  • Can we reduce the actual human repetition that’s involved?
  • Can we completely remove a process that’s defunct?
  • Are we still doing something just because we’ve always done it? *Hint: If you can’t answer the question “Why do you do that?” then it’s time to re-examine the process. Potentially, you are working on a defunct process.

Build in a review mechanism. The easiest way to do this is to add it to an existing routine in your business. EFY planning: review this process. EOM reporting, review the process.

At the beginning of a new year, review the process. It’s up to you!

It’s appropriate to review your processes and update them, or to re-examine them and look at them from another perspective.

Definition and Components of Processes

Processes are the tools, methods, communications, and decision-making systems we develop to assist and support the collaborative effort of work. The first place to start understanding what your system needs is to review processes. Processes are made up of humans, systems, the data that moves between them, and the development of ways of working that make us more effectively able to produce an end state.

TLDR; Recommended Actions

The new year is a great time to re-examine processes. Are they still serving us? What might we say goodbye to? Don’t feel like you have to do this all in January, though; taking it step by step and doing a little bit each month or week can totally work for you!

Start with a thorough review of current processes. If you’ve already got processes documented, they have likely changed since they were last edited. Maybe your systems have been updated, a role has changed, and a customer who had a specific process just for them no longer needs that service.

Continuously improve processes by questioning their relevance and efficiency. Examine hard and make sure that there is nothing that’s off-limits in terms of questioning. Create time to review and seek feedback. What’s working? What should we let go of?

Keep an eye on the balance of psychological safety with a commitment to excellence in process execution. No one should feel threatened at work but being safe without a commitment to excellence is not moving the team forward.

Ready to transform your operations? At 6R Retail, we specialise in driving technological and transformational change. Our team of experienced project managers is dedicated to helping you improve your business processes, implement new systems, and master the art of leading change. Learn more about our comprehensive approach to Retail Project Management here.

Whether it’s upgrading your ERP system, launching a new e-commerce platform, or streamlining your internal communication, we’re here to support you every step of the way. Don’t let process challenges hold you back. Book a call with us today.