In this blog, we discuss how to apply an atomic habit mindset to four common business process improvement approaches to achieve optimized performance.
In his #1 New York Times bestseller “Atomic Habits,” James Clear defines the term “atomic habits” as “a regular practice or routine that is not only small and easy to do, but also the source of incredible power.”
Like its chemical name suggests, an atomic habit has three key attributes: it is small, a building block of a larger system, and a source of energy. Due to their approachable nature, atomic habits are the foundation for building significant changes.
For example, an aspiring author can commit to a manageable atomic habit like writing one sentence every day. Once this routine feels natural, the aspiring author may feel motivated enough to increase the habit’s difficulty (like writing five sentences every day) or to add another habit (like reading for fifteen minutes daily). When you stack atomic habits on top of each other, a self-improvement powerhouse is born.
So, why am I talking about personal habit-building in a business blog?
Clear argues that real change results from purposeful, consistent daily actions rather than attempting to overhaul all undesired behaviors at once. Similarly, we often think that improving our business practices requires massive, sweeping actions in a short time period. However, applying the atomic habit mindset to business process improvement (BPI) reveals the dramatic impact small, continuous adjustments can have on your organization.
Business Process Improvement as Habit-Building
We define business process improvement as “an ongoing practice that helps company leaders pinpoint inefficiencies or areas of improvement within their business.” Typically, organizations undertake BPI initiatives when they want to reduce costs, minimize risk, or increase innovation. Like habit-building, BPI requires identifying your organization’s goals, assessing your current state, and committing to making continuous small improvements. The following table details how taking an atomic habit approach to BPI can help businesses:
If you want significant and long-lasting improvements, starting small is the key.
Setting goals for your business, like the four mentioned above, is easy. Achieving them through large, rushed process improvement projects, however, is often difficult. Many organizations create complicated, high-level strategies for process improvement, making pursuing their goals seem intimidating and inaccessible.
To truly transform your organization, consider reframing BPI from a lofty endeavor into an atomic habit: an ingrained, indispensable, and foundational aspect of your business operations.
Applying Atomic Habits to Popular Business Process Improvement Methodologies
Atomic habits are small, incremental changes that build upon each other. When organizations adopt the atomic habit mindset and witness its cumulative impact, they set a powerful force in motion: the perpetual drive for improvement. Each change, no matter how small, keeps your organization on a trajectory of constant enhancement and a journey toward excellence.
Applying the atomic habit mindset to popular process improvement methodologies provides the motivation and adaptability for sustained optimization. The four primary BPI methodologies are Lean, Six Sigma, business process reengineering (BPR), and business process management (BPM). In this article, we describe each BPI methodology and use personal habit-building analogies to illustrate the organizational environments to which they are best suited. Because each of these methodologies has strengths and weaknesses, the best approach for your organization will depend on your specific needs.
Regardless of which framework you choose, we explain how the atomic habit mindset is a powerful catalyst that makes these frameworks more effective and enduring, ultimately improving your organization’s bottom line over time.
1. Lean Emphasizes Reducing Waste and Optimizing Efficiency
“If you want to master a habit, the key is to start with repetition, not perfection.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits
Personal Growth: Consider someone who consistently arrives late to work. By identifying time-wasting habits, like sleeping through their alarm and spending an hour scrolling on social media, this person can craft an efficient morning routine that allows them to arrive at work punctually and as their best self. Eliminating even the smallest time-wasting habits can transform your routines if persistently practiced.
Organizational Optimization: The Lean methodology embodies the intentional, incremental habit-building approach that Clear describes. Often used in manufacturing and production environments, Lean is a set of practices that focuses on eliminating waste. By consistently examining the steps of production processes, the Lean approach uncovers hidden excess and improves overall efficiency.
Much like Atomic Habits encourages repetition rather than perfection, Lean repeatedly reviews and updates production processes for optimized performance. Your processes will never be perfectly efficient, but routinely finding small ways to eliminate their time- and resource-draining aspects will keep them changing for the better.
Below are Lean atomic habits you can incorporate into your daily work:
2. Six Sigma Focuses on Eliminating Defects
“Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. Getting one percent better every day counts for a lot in the long run.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits
Personal Growth: If a person who doesn’t run wants to train for a half marathon, they won’t be able to run 13.1 miles on their first try. But, if they believe they can, and run every day without a plan, they may feel overwhelmed and discouraged. By contrast, committing to metric-driven training will propel that person closer to their goal.
Logging the number of days per week they exercise, the number of miles they run, and how long it takes to run each one will provide valuable data for tracking progress and identifying areas of improvement, eventually closing the gap between the person’s current fitness state and their 13.1-mile goal.
Organizational Optimization: Similarly, the Six Sigma methodology focuses on consistency to improve the quality of processes in high-volume, high-stakes environments. In industries like automotive, aircraft or smartphone manufacturing, a defect-free process is essential. Six Sigma uses statistical analysis to identify and eliminate any deviations, especially errors, from a process to ensure accuracy and safety.
A more rigorous approach to process improvement than Lean, Six Sigma has five steps:
- Define the defect.
- Measure its frequency.
- Analyze its root cause.
- Improve the process.
- Control the improved process (DMAIC).
Like “Atomic Habits” encourages progress over perfection, Six Sigma uses process analysis to enact deliberate, calculated refinements. Whether it’s running a half marathon or improving complex organizational processes, mastery is the result of systematic, incremental efforts.
Below are atomic Six Sigma habits you can incorporate into your daily work:
3. Business Process Reengineering Involves Redesigning Processes
“No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits
Personal Growth: Incorporating one habit into our lives does not redefine who we are. Rather, Clear argues that our approach to habit formation and attitude towards personal improvement shapes our identity. Transformation is a cumulative process in which consistent small actions compile and eventually solidify our new identity.
Organizational Optimization: Just as reading a few more minutes per day might not drastically change a person’s identity, streamlining one order fulfillment process might not transform an organization’s operations. Rather than relying on isolated changes to spark significant improvement, BPR is a comprehensive approach that redesigns processes from the ground up.
Often used when operations are outdated or consistently inefficient, BPR involves a series of coordinated changes that, when implemented effectively, can lead to a new and streamlined operation. For example, a healthcare network that has acquired multiple hospitals over several states can quickly become clogged with complex and fragmented processes that hinder efficiency, patient care, and cost-effectiveness. Redesigning administrative, technology integration and patient care processes can harmonize operations on both the individual hospital and network levels.
Like the “votes” Clear describes, each reengineered process is a building block of a more productive and competitive organization. In other words, actions driven by the coordinated atomic habit approach lay the foundation of transformation.
Below are atomic BPR habits that you can incorporate into your daily work:
4. Business Process Management Hinges on Continuous Improvement
“The process of behavior change always starts with awareness. You need to be aware of your habits before you change them.” – James Clear, Atomic Habits
Personal Growth: Many people who don’t wake up early label themselves as “not morning people.” However, if one of these people secures a new job with an 8 a.m. start time, they need to become a morning person — and quickly.
Using Clear’s quote as a process improvement framework, this person can’t adopt a new habit of waking up early until they understand their current morning and bedtime routines. Devoting a week to carefully examining these routines may illuminate previously unnoticed behaviors.
Perhaps this person has a 2 a.m. bedtime and isn’t getting enough sleep, or maybe they snooze their alarm several times, disrupting their sleep cycle. Only by identifying their problem areas can this person set out to improve them.
Organizational Optimization: Similarly, awareness is the foundation of BPM, a holistic approach to process improvement encompassing a process’s entire lifecycle. More iterative and continuous than BPR, BPM uses a variety of tools, from interviews to data analysis, to document an organization’s current processes from start to finish. For example, a national retail chain with a competitive online presence may have difficulty managing inventory and multi-channel sales.
After understanding the retail chain’s current operational landscape, it is easier to determine which processes are inefficient or ineffective and to redesign them for optimized performance.
Much like the atomic habit approach to personal improvement, BPM is not a one-time fix. BPM consistently evaluates updated processes to determine whether they perform as intended. In short, awareness ensures that change aligns with your goals.
Below are atomic BPM habits that you can incorporate into your daily work:
Building on Process Improvements Has a ‘Compound Interest’
Change thrives on consistency and gradual accumulation, whether in personal habits or organizational processes. By recognizing that incremental changes build a foundation for impactful improvements, organizations can harness the atomic habit mindset to streamline operations, gain a competitive advantage and achieve lasting transformation.
Just as Clear emphasizes the power of small, routine actions, BPI methodologies like Lean, Six Sigma, BPR and BPM flourish when infused with gradual modifications.
Beneath each BPI framework, we have provided you with a list of manageable atomic habits. As Clear stresses, you should not attempt to apply every example all at once. After identifying your goals and current state of operations, choose the BPI framework that aligns best with your organization’s needs and concentrate on introducing one atomic habit at a time into your workplace. Once the momentum of gradual change increases, you will witness atomic transformations — meaningful, lasting improvements.