Learn how to achieve process improvement, cost reduction and greater operational efficiency.
What is Process Improvement?
Process improvement is the act or discipline of optimising business processes for the best results. Process improvement can have many goals - including cost reduction, service improvement, and faster resolution. These benefits stack and reinforce each other, and one of the major tenets of process improvement is continuous improvement.
Unlike an actual process, process improvement rarely has an end point. It is a constant process of business optimisation without a final destination.
What is a Process?
A process is a linear sequence of actions, steps or events that progress from a defined starting point to an end point or outcome. Processes exist to establish a common, consistent and efficient flow of events that contribute to a desired result. Viewed in isolation, a single stage may provide little utility. Yet when viewed as part of a larger process, individual events start to show their true value.
Processes most often emerge organically as people try to find the best way to achieve an intended end goal. However, they can also be planned in advance before they are deployed to a real-world context. Processes are rarely static. They are constantly changing in response to external forces, or are being guided for the purposes of process improvement.
What is a Business Process?
Businesses are built on processes. Depending on the size and complexity of an organisation, it can take hundreds or even thousands of processes for a business to achieve its goals of growth, profit and success.
Most business processes are small-scale and tactical, executed through employees or automation bots. However, some processes are absolutely critical for the successful operation of a business. These mission-critical processes usually affect whole departments or an entire organisation. Changes here tend to have the largest impacts, so the bulk of process improvement efforts are usually focused on these core processes.
Some of the most common, business-critical processes include:
- Accounts payable (AP) processes
- Accounts receivable (AR) processes
- Customer service processes
- Inventory management processes
- Order-to-cash (O2C) processes
- Order management processes
- Procurement processess
- Purchase-to-pay (P2P) processes
Business processes will be defined differently between different companies. They are rarely standardised, each uniquely shaped by the people, systems and circumstances that make up the organisation.
Business processes are never perfect. They do not always follow the set path intended for them, especially when reliant on human workflows. A process can break down easily if unsupervised, or become altered as exceptions, workarounds and loopholes become the rule. Sometimes these deviations create more efficient processes, but often instead warp them by introducing new problems or inefficiencies.
Process management, insight and improvement are crucial for ensuring workflows don’t go awry.
What are the Process Types?
Business processes can be divided and categorised almost endlessly. Many businesses distinguish between their non-functional, mission-critical business processes and the everyday processes their employees are engaged in.
However, many overlook the crucial distinction between structured and unstructured business processes.
In modern businesses, many business processes need to interface with corporate IT systems to reach completion. These interactions create a digital footprint in the form of event log data. The presence of this data makes the processes much easier to ‘structure’ and analyse going forward.
Structured processes are also common targets for automation. Actions performed entirely through IT systems are easily mimicked by automation technologies such as robotic process automation (RPA). As pressure for greater cost savings and efficiency grows, process improvement leaders are automating more and more of such structured processes. However, there are only so many structured processes in a business - and many are running out of scope for further automations.
It’s a common assumption in business that a series of events doesn’t become a process until it can be captured, analysed and therefore improved. However, this misconconception overlooks the vast majority of processes in a business that are unstructured. Indeed, it’s estimated that 80-90% of all data generated in a business will be in an unstructured format. Every business process that involves humans will become unstructured at some point in its sequence. This happens when a human has to go outside of core IT systems to get their work done.
Common unstructured processes include:
- Sending an email to a colleague
- Triaging a service request to the correct team
- Making a phone call to a customer, partner or supplier
These are only a few examples, but in all of these cases the action performed does not create a usable data log. This is despite the fact that each uses a form of digital communication. The reason is that such communications-based processes are expressed entirely in unstructured data - that is data that isn’t machine-readable in its raw format.
The challenge is that communications-based workflows are some of the most important, pervasive and least efficient processes in the enterprise. Service functions - from Business Services to IT Support and Customer Support - are based in communications. It’s estimated that employee email communication alone costs businesses between $5,000 to £10,000 per employee each year. Communications touches almost every single process. But unless the enterprise has the capability to process unstructured data, these processes remain immune to analysis, immune to automation, and beyond the scope of improvement.
Why is Process Improvement Important?
Similar to customer experience, process improvement has become one of the most important factors around which organisations compete.
Products and services are becoming more standardised as the speed of development accelerates. Today, competing around product or service differentiation doesn’t make for a good long-term strategy. Innovation has a short shelf life in today’s high-speed, interconnected global marketplace. Within months, a competitor can and will be offering the same capability to your customers.
As competitive differentiation becomes harder to obtain, more organisations are focussing on competitive efficiency. Indeed, many of today’s most successful, fastest-growing companies obsess over their processes. They actively compete to make their business processes more efficient, reducing operating costs while maximising output. Obtaining this competitive efficiency enables businesses to serve their customers faster, innovate quicker, achieve greater profits in less time and with less waste.
Process improvement is crucial because it separates market leaders from the rest of the competition. The better a company’s processes are, the faster it is able to change and the greater its competitive advantage will be.
Who’s Responsible for Process Improvement?
Process improvement has become a key strategic priority, gaining significant representation in the C-suite and at the very top of organisations. Today, entire teams and departments are responsible for process improvement - usually falling under the category of Process Excellence. Leaders of change, intelligent automation and transformation usually have ultimate responsibility to find and eliminate inefficiencies.
However, it’s critical that process improvement isn’t limited solely to one person or department within a business. Today’s enterprises are too large and too complex for process improvement to be single-threaded. Competitive efficiency requires that every employee is encouraged and empowered to seek out positive changes and improvements. This capability used to be out of reach for most employees, but it’s fast becoming a necessity. Employees are increasingly overwhelmed by the number and complexity of processes they interact with on a daily basis.
Fortunately, a new generation of low- and no-code automation tools are putting process improvement in the hands of every employee. Utilising platforms like Re:infer, a UiPath company, employees can discover new opportunities for process improvement, and can even automate entirely new service processes. This is all possible without any technical ability on the part of the user.
Zero-code solutions provide the best means of scaling process improvement to every corner of the enterprise.
What are the Advantages of Process Improvement?
The benefits of process improvement quickly ripple out and reinforce each other. Increased efficiency in one process will mean faster resolution time in another, and so on.
There are many reasons for why process improvement is vital for business success:
Streamlining the most time-consuming tasks and activities reduces handling time, enabling higher output and allowing more processes to be completed.
Automation and process optimisation means employees will spend less time grinding on mundane, repetitive tasks. Satisfaction with their work will increase as they are freed up to focus on more challenging, engaging work.
Process improvement helps you to embed compliance in your business processes. Reduced risk and faster resolution in reporting makes it easier to fulfill regulatory requirements and adhere to customer SLAs.
Improved service and customer satisfaction
Faster and more efficient service delivers a better customer experience. Process improvement boosts CSAT and strengthens customer loyalty.
Better business agility
Automated or streamlined processes can be changed and adapted more quickly, allowing businesses to pivot rapidly to avoid emerging challenges and take advantage of new opportunities.
Manual, repetitive processes are prone to human error and process breakdown. Making them more efficient through automation limits the danger of bad outcomes, lost customers and regulatory penalties.
How do I Get Started with Process Improvement?
Before you can start improving a process, you first have to understand it. Process intelligence is the first step on the road to process improvement.
It’s important to document all the processes in your enterprise so you understand where resources should be focussed. Given the complexity of businesses and their processes, it is best to use process documentation software like a Business Process Management (BPM) platform.
Process documentation should follow this sequence, which is often called Process Mapping:
- Identify the process and name it. You should begin with core business processes.
- Define the scope of the process, determining what events are included in the process.
- Set the process’s boundaries. Understand where the process begins and ends, what causes the process to start etc..
- Identify the process inputs - what resources are necessary to complete the process?
- Deepen your understanding of the process steps by gathering the insight of the involved employees.
- Create a process flow by organising the steps in sequence.
- Understand who is responsible for each process step.
- Discover and describe any exceptions to the normal process flow.
- Add control points and measurements to the process.
Once the process has been fully documented, you should perform further analysis using process intelligence tools to understand where there are inefficiencies and how you might improve them.
What are the Best Process Improvement Tools?
To achieve process improvement, organisations will need a mixture of the best process intelligence and process automation tools.
Communications Mining is a vital process intelligence tool required for gaining insight into unstructured data-based processes. Communications Mining is designed to extract important information from communications workflows - such as shared email boxes - to understand the efficiency of the process and how it can be improved.
Communications Mining is best used as a first port of call for process improvement. Its insights create and constantly feed into a steady pipeline of potential change opportunities. This makes Communications Mining an ideal complementary solution to other tools like Process Mining. Communications Mining surfaces potential areas of process improvement, which can then be analysed and assessed further with Process Mining.
Process Mining is a class of tools and solutions that help users monitor, improve and extract insight from structured processes in an enterprise. Process Mining constructs and visualises processes using data extracted from the business IT system. This presents users with a representation of business processes that are based on data and truth, rather than the subjective opinions of the people involved in them.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA)
RPA is one of the most pervasive and powerful process automation tools. RPA gives organisations the capability to create software robots that mimic the actions of human employees. Traditionally, RPA has only been able to replicate actions taken within structured processes that interact with corporate IT systems. This has limited RPA’s scope and potential. However, by integrating the technology with more advanced AI solutions through intelligent automation, businesses are now able to perform end-to-end automation on more complex, unstructured workflows.
Task Mining is a process intelligence tool used for gaining insight into individual staff activities. Task Mining captures user interaction data - such as the frequency of mouse clicks on a desktop - to help businesses understand their people’s productivity and performance on a task-level.
What is Continuous Improvement?
Continuous improvement, also known as ‘Kaizen’, is a methodology for constantly improving process efficiency and reducing waste. The practice was first formalised in Japan as a business philosophy that focused on continually improving operations and involving all employees in the process.
After driving impressive results in the manufacturing sector, Lean, Agile and Kaizen approaches have achieved massive popularity across the world and are being used by thousands of companies to identify savings opportunities. Continuous improvement is the ultimate end goal for many businesses that pursue process improvement.
However, it’s important to stress that achieving continuous improvement requires the highest levels of process intelligence. A constant, steady pipeline of change opportunities needs to be identified to drive continual progress and improvement.
This is of course one of the main advantages of Communications Mining. By processing and analysing all of an organisation's communications data in real time, these solutions are constantly highlighting inefficiencies, process issues and opportunities for automation. It provides the crucial cognitive layer needed for continuous improvement.
Process Improvement and Re:infer
The Re:infer Conversational Data Intelligence Platform is a powerful tool for process improvement.
It provides two crucial components for process and continuous improvement - process intelligence and process automation.
Re:infer Communications Mining monitors and analyses business communications in real time, constantly surfacing process inefficiencies and opportunities for automation. Re:infer also creates the clean structured data needed to drive automated workflows into the most complex processes based on human language and conversations.
Re:infer Conversational Data Intelligence provides full, no-code natural language processing capabilities that start delivering value after a short training period - making it an ideal solution for the enterprise. Re:infer has worked with many companies to extract the value from conversational data and build intelligent products, services and workflows.