“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.” ~ Unknown
While there’s some disagreement over who that impactful quote should be attributed to (sources range from Henry Ford to Tony Robbins), there’s no denying that the message holds some weight. Yet, far too often, leaders and managers instruct their teams to stick to the same outdated process—all while expecting different results.
Work processes are the glue that holds things together and ensures that tasks are completed in a way that’s systematic, organized, and involves as few dropped balls as possible.
But, here’s the thing about your processes: they shouldn't be operated with a “set and forget” mindset. You need to be consistently evaluating them to identify what’s not working, and then use that information to build more ideal systems for your team. Because change is the only constant on your team, and your processes need to mirror this.
How do you go about identifying your team’s work processes and then tweaking them accordingly? Here’s everything you need to know:
What are Work Processes?
The Baldridge Glossary explains that, “The term ‘work processes’ refers to your most important internal value creation processes. They are the processes that involve the majority of your organization’s workforce and produce customer, stakeholder, and stockholder value.”
If you want to boil that down into a more straightforward definition: your work processes are standard ways that important things get accomplished.
Whether it’s cranking out a specific report or launching an entirely new product, there is usually a systematized flow of information and a standard set of tasks that need to be completed by your team.
Why are these processes important? They keep your team on the same page, while also ensuring that everybody has a clear idea of what needs to be accomplished and where their piece fits into the whole puzzle.
“To help teams perform specific tasks, they need operational guidance. That is, they need some thing or some person that tells them precisely what to do and when,” Watts S. Humphrey explains in his paper for the Carnegie Mellon University Software Engineering Institute, “That is the role of an operational process. It provides a simple and brief description of the steps required to do this specific job.”
However, processes aren’t designed to be stagnant—they should change as your team, objectives, and resources change. And, adjusting your work processes all begins with identifying your current ones.
How to Identify Your Current Work Process
Some people believe that identifying the way things currently get done is an easy task. However, you might be surprised by how much is unsaid (and undocumented) —particularly when you have long-standing team members who just know to get certain things taken care of, whether they’ve been instructed to or not.
So, shining a spotlight on your current processes will involve a little bit of work. Here’s how to get it done:
1. Enlist Your Team
Your main goal is to get an in-depth view of how tasks and information flow through your team—not just a broad, high-level overview from where you sit. This means that you’ll need to work closely with your team to truly understand how they work. After all, they’re the ones that are in the trenches and actually knee-deep in your processes day in and day out.
“Start with a known business process such as, ‘We collect money from our customers and then we pay bills,’” says Will Bachman, Co-Founder of Umbrex and a McKinsey-trained operations expert. “Then ask the person who collects money, ‘Walk me through your portion of the process, step by step.’ As soon as the person mentions some piece of information that they get from someone else ask, ‘How do you get that information? Who do you get that from?’”
Then, you’ll approach the person that was mentioned and repeat that same questioning. “Keep tracing the chain all the way back to the salesperson who sold the product in the first place,” Bachman says.
This approach seems painfully straightforward. But, you’d be surprised by how many managers fail to enlist the insights of their team before charging ahead with a new process. Take the time to play this game of tag — it’s sure to help you do a deep dive on your current processes.
2. Build a Flow Chart
Using the information you discover in that first step, build a visual representation of the process to help guide you.
“Start with a simple flowchart,” explains Ilene Marcus, Founder and CEO of Aligned Workplace. “It’s how you organize and conceptualize the flow that allows you to see the disconnects and set the framework for implementing the change.”
Building a flowchart (also known as Business Process Mapping) has become increasingly popular in the business world. “Its purpose is to gain a detailed understanding of the process, people, inputs, controls and outputs, and then potentially to simplify it all, make it more efficient and/or improve the process results,” this post for LucidChart eloquently explains.
So, don’t be afraid to get creative and literally draw out your processes. Having that visual will help you significantly in the following step.
Not convinced of the power of visualization? Watch what happens when Tom Wujec asks people to draw out the process of making toast:
3. Pinpoint Concerns
Remember, the goal of identifying your process was not just to spot how things flow, but also how they can be improved. This means that apart from identifying the process, you also need to identify where things might fall apart.
By using the two steps above, it’ll become much easier to identify things that are being missed or if there are areas that aren’t going according to plan.
Using our "collecting money" example from above, you quickly realize that the person responsible for using those funds to pay the bills is struggling month after month to actually get the go-ahead from the person who receives the money from customers—it's a roadblock that she's dealing with consistently, and it really slows her down.
Document those challenges (and any others that come up!) so you can be sure to address them when building the new process.
“Documenting and knowing where they exist will help you to sidestep trouble spots and address employee concerns that are critical in implementing the new process,” adds Marcus.
Building a Better Process
Now that you have a grasp of what your current work process looks like and any areas that could use improvement, it’s time to get started on the next step: building a workflow that will function better for your team and address those operational concerns that are slowing things down.
1. Ask Questions
Like you did when identifying current processes, your first step in designing a new process should be to converse with your team members.
Have a frank discussion with them. Why is this roadblock occurring? Is there anything they need in order to do their jobs well that they’re not currently getting? What would make their jobs easier?
Having an understanding of what their concerns are, why they’re occurring, and how they can be addressed, will help you craft and implement a new process that truly resolves those issues, rather than slapping a band-aid on them.
2. Create a New Flow Chart
When it comes to designing a new process, building out another visual representation will be helpful in ensuring that you address all the concerns that were highlighted during your research.
However, don’t trick yourself into thinking that this process needs to be anything overly complex or formal. As long as you get the new process mapped out on paper in a way that you and your team can understand, you’re on the right track.
When thinking of how you’ll create the new workflow, “Design the process as if you were starting a new entity with great resources,” says Daniel Feiman, Managing Director of Build it Backwards. That will help you shake any limiting beliefs you have when mapping your flowchart. You'll craft a process that will actually improve the way your team functions.
3. Move Backwards
Building an entirely new process can feel overwhelming. So, the smartest way to approach it is to actually work backwards.
“Start with the goal or output of the process and ask, ‘In order to achieve this result, what must we do?’” says Michael Clingan, Founder of The Claymore Group. “Do the same for each subsequent answer until the process is defined. The team will be designing the process from outputs back to inputs.”
Let's say that you want to uncover the process for how your content team creates a blog post. Rather than starting way back at the beginning, start with the end result: a post is published. What step happens right before that? It's scheduled. Before that? It's SEO-optimized. And, before that? Images are added.
Continue moving backwards through each little piece of the puzzle until you've reached the very beginning—when a blog post idea is selected.
Once the draft of the new process is done, Clingan suggests reviewing and improving it by looking for the following three situations:
- When something that could or should be happening isn’t.
- When something that shouldn’t be happening is.
- When you don’t know what’s happening.
4. Reduce the Volume
Even with the above steps, you may still end up with a somewhat bloated and overly complicated process.
“Most processes can be done in no more than six steps—even though we know there are many moving parts and sub-steps that occur,” says Marcus.
This is why it’s important to try to reduce the volume of your process to make it as streamlined as possible. “It’s always better to put your hours of operation on your website than to develop a very efficient process for providing your hours of operation on the phone,” Bachman provides as an example.
Tip: Look for areas where you’re completing things simply because you’ve always done them—those might be tasks that could be cut out completely.
Tip: Keep your eyes peeled for sections where you might have one piece of the process passing through too many hands. Often, the less people involved in getting a particular task accomplished, the better.
Tip: Continuously ask yourself if there’s a better way things could be done. Just because they wind up completed doesn’t always mean they were finished in the most efficient and effective way. Reviewing and learning is the only way to improve processes for the future.
Easing the Transition: How to Implement New Processes
Even though this new process is designed to help your team function better while addressing the problems they were consistently facing, there will be resistance to change. You will experience some reluctance or hesitation when introducing a new and improved process.
For this reason, it’s important that you communicate openly with your team members and involve them in the process as instructed above.
Before you implement this new way of doing things, schedule a meeting with the team members who will be impacted by this new process. Take the time to explain why this change was necessary—making sure that you touch on those challenges and pain points you identified—and then ask for any further questions or suggestions about the new process.
The more people understand why the change was made and how it helps them, the more accommodating and engaged they’ll be.
Your work processes are how your team gets things accomplished. But they shouldn't just be set and forgotten because change is the only real constant in your team.
Members leave, new ones join. New technologies and tools are introduced while others are retired. Goals and objectives shift all the time. Failing to adjust and improve your processes to match those changes will only result in frustration, disorganization, and debate.
Instead of hoping that your team members adapt and processes somehow adjust when changes are introduced, you need to be proactive in managing change by identifying current processes and then crafting new ones that will keep your team’s tasks streamlined and predictable.
To recap, here's what that looks like:
|Identifying Your Current Work Process:|
|Building a Better Process:|
Use this information to pinpoint your current processes and make the necessary adjustments, and your team is sure to be effective, efficient, and organized—regardless of what gets thrown their way!
Kat Boogaard (@kat_boogaard) is a Midwest-based writer, covering topics related to careers, self-development, and the freelance life. She is a columnist for Inc., writes for The Muse, is a career writer for The Everygirl, and a contributor all over the web.