The most important business process improvement question may seem simple, but in this blog, you learn that “why” is a powerful question to leverage.
Part of a series.
We’ve gone over the path to process excellence maturity, what process excellence can do for your organization’s business value and the merits of Lean and Six Sigma. Now, we’ll discuss processes and the top questions to ask for process improvement.
I’ll take a few liberties with this story since it’s been a while, and the details are a bit hazy, but hopefully, you’ll see the point.
In a prior role, my team was responsible for converting a government agency to our card-processing platform. In one location, an individual refused to perform the conversion until they received the “Sally Report,” a report the current processor provided.
When pushed harder about the Sally Report, this individual could only explain that “Sally” was someone who hadn’t worked at the facility in several years. However, the individual still printed the report by “hitting F12 every morning” and then delivered this report to another location.
After an extended time trying to hunt down details on the Sally Report, the agency noted the person to whom the original “Sally” had been sending the report was no longer in their position, and the replacement had never used the report at all.
It turns out the agency produced this report for years with no purpose. The inability to recognize that previous constraints no longer existed led to waste across multiple areas and a delay in the processor conversion. When you’re thinking about business process improvement, perhaps the most important process improvement question is the most simple. In this instance, no one took the time to ask, “Why?”
How to Identify a Process Improvement Need
This story leads me to my (nearly) fool-proof method for identifying areas requiring process improvement: just ask why.
Similar to the “5 Whys” method used to identify the root cause of an issue, we base this method on simply asking a person to tell you about their process and continuing to ask “why” multiple times to determine the purpose or reason for each process step. You may feel like a toddler, but the reality is that your reason for asking is similar in that you simply want to fully understand the reasoning for a given scenario.
If they can provide a good, meaningful answer four or five times, you can likely leave the process step alone in the initial analysis. If not, it’s probably an area to start looking at for a “just-do-it” (JDI) project. Used in Lean, Six Sigma and Kaizen, JDI is a quick fix for when you know the solution and can make the change quickly – typically within 24 hours. However, if the solution doesn’t work, you must also be able to revert to the original process just as quickly.
In the initial process improvement interviews, you can generally find areas to address within two or three why questions. For the Sally Report example, some answers that gave it away included:
- “I do this because the person before me always did this.”
- “We’ve been doing it this way for 20 years.”
- “This is how they taught me to do it.”
- “I don’t know why we do it this way.”
The first two or three why questions often result in a confused look or a delayed response of, “I guess I don’t know.”
The Top Business Process Improvement Question is “Why?”
You can apply the “just ask why” approach to individual process steps and overall processes. You can use it more broadly at first and then as a follow-up to help dig into a wealth of process knowledge.
Questions like “Why is this process done?” can help identify the business’s purpose. Answers should relate to delivering business value or be subject to additional “why” questions. Other good questions include:
- “Why does this department need to be involved in the process?”
- “Why can’t we get this to the customer faster?”
It’s important to note not all questions have to be why questions, but you can always follow them up with “why?” based on the answer you receive. For instance:
- Does this process add value?
- How can we improve the process to have a greater impact?
- Who should we include on the process improvement team?
- What tools, technology or other resources can we leverage to improve this process?
- Does this process help meet the organizational mission and goals?
In general, more thorough process improvement questions and methodologies, such as Lean, Six Sigma or Kaizen, can add significant value, but these may be more than your company initially needs to start its improvement journey. You can achieve excellence for business processes more quickly by identifying JDI improvement opportunities.
Once you implement these simple modifications, you can then further optimize the revised process through another process improvement methodology. We talk more about that in the final blog of the series.
It may seem too simple, but when you’re thinking about questions to ask for process improvement, start by asking, “Why?”