‘Continuous improvement is a bottom-up process. It starts with the people who do the work’
Change is coming faster than ever. With the pace of innovation accelerating, many organizations are having trouble keeping up. Obvious reasons why companies are struggling abound: failed technological implementations, disregard for customers’ changing expectations, complacency, obsolete management styles.
Another, less publicized, reason companies experience hiccups when going through change is the absence of a process mindset. ‘Lack of transparency adds a lot to the complexity of big change,’ CFO Services Client Partner Maddy Lauwers says. Together with Sonja Vanheeswijck, who leads the Processes for Transparency Expert Practice, Maddy has been developing CFO Services’ process narrative and services, also managing implementation projects.
‘An organization that wants to keep up with change must improve continuously,’ Sonja says. ‘For us, continuous improvement is not a Big Bang transformation imposed top-down onto the organization. If anything, it’s a bottom-up process that starts with the people who do the work on a day-to-day basis.’ In this interview, Maddy and Sonja discuss the need for process transparency and the many advantages of a process mindset.
Interview by Dirk van Bastelaere
The ‘Processes for Transparency’ Expert Practice within CFO Services is specialized in Business Process Management, bringing transparency to business processes. What is a typical situation for your Expert Practice to come into action?
Maddy Lauwers: ‘It depends on the challenges of the organization. Sometimes an organization gets in touch because it wants to start a transformation, or tackle a certain domain like risk, GDPR or internal controls.
‘Very often, however, we come in because a company lost control of some of their processes. Many companies try multiple times to bring transparency to their processes. The reason for that is often a one-time event like an audit or the acquisition of a company, necessitating due diligence.’
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘One-time events like those typically trigger a need to fix some process or another…’
Maddy Lauwers: ‘The solutions then often disappear into a closet until the next urgency pops up. That is a big waste of time, and a big cost.’
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘When an organization moves on, improving and changing things, the first phase of every change is usually describing the specific ‘As Is’ situation. That happens again and again. Companies pay a lot of money to external partners to do this, only to end up with multiple descriptions of the ‘As Is’.
‘Instead, they should document their processes qualitatively and sustainably before they start a new implementation. That way, they create an ideal frame for the most diverse changes, like the implementation of a new ERP system, becoming GDPR compliant, the set-up of a Shared Service Center or a general restructuring. The frame makes efficient and effective change possible, bringing organizations the agility they need to be prepared in a changing environment.’
Maddy Lauwers: ‘Some small companies may still able to oversee the process, but in most of the mid-size and big companies, that’s simply impossible.
‘Not every change needs to be very big and complex. If you know what is going to happen and what the impact will be, people will be able to manage the change. If you don’t know what’s coming, fear kicks in, people disconnect and the whole transformation risks to come to a standstill.’
Legacy on all levels
That maybe explains why so many companies are change-averse?
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘Most companies know that change has an impact at several places in the organization. They hardly ever know what this impact is going to be, and where, because things have become very opaque and complex. There is legacy on all levels. That’s why companies often refrain from big transformations and keep tinkering on little things, without any guarantee towards the future.
Maddy Lauwers: ‘Lack of insight and end-to-end process transparency adds a lot to the complexity of big change. If you know exactly how your processes run and how everything interlinks, the experts on all parts of the process will support you.’
‘The classical thing for organizations to do is focus on functions, where everything that is an output becomes an input for the next function or department. An inherent risk to this organizational model is that processes are looked at from a silo perspective instead of from an end-to-end view.
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘People keep working in silos. They only see their part of the game. If you create end-to-end process transparency and make sure people adopt that end-to-end view, they can help each other. Understanding the purpose of the process and what the next person must do with their output, to start with, makes the next step in the process easier.’
Can you give an example?
Maddy Lauwers: ‘Take the purchase-to-pay process. At some time or other, we all have placed an order: you need a certain product or service, you order it, the product or service gets delivered and you finally pay the service or product.’
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘That process starts in every team, unit or department that has the need to buy things - even small things like pens, paper, printers.’
Maddy Lauwers: ‘The request is forwarded into procurement or a shared service center doing the back-office of procurement. They create the purchase order. Goods or services are delivered and will need to be paid through finance in the shared service center or through the central finance department for paying the goods. Finance verifies the goods have been delivered and checks if order and price are correct. In some companies this process is also automated.
‘You can only be assured of a correct, smooth and efficient process by having all participating groups involved and having people look outside of their silos.’
How do you create that insight into what comes before and what comes after a certain employee’s task? Do you use a specific methodology to create insight into the process?
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘Bringing together the information for a certain process step means you not only indicate what is done, but you also determine the six ‘W’s’: “Who is doing it? When? Why? Where? With What? And Where does it afterwards go to?”
‘To create process insight, we link pieces of information in a tool. These pieces belong together in a certain organizational context. That’s the context of information for a process that you must construct.’
Maddy Lauwers: ‘We try to involve everybody who contributes to the process, each of them in their expert domain. With everybody aligned and knowing how to collaborate, the process will be lived and change becomes part of their daily activities. People will internalize the change. They no longer see it as an outside force, something coming onto them, frightening them. In a way, we try to bring some stability to the organization, but to accomplish that, we often need to bring about a change in mindset. You could even call that a culture change.'
Valuing user experience
Once you have made the process transparent, adopting an end-to-end perspective and documenting the ‘As Is’ situation, you can start to think about the ‘To Be’ situation. Can you elaborate on your approach for that phase of the process?
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘What we usually try to do for each process is identify process owners and key users that are involved in the process. We either do workshops or interviews and have these key users tell what they do exactly, so that we can draw up the process end-to-end.
‘We share what we’ve captured as soon as possible to check the description and make sure we have understood it right. We’ll then do a validation round. If we got the process right, the process owner will validate the whole end-to-end process.
‘An important element is that we value user experience and comments in the tool. People will say “This is an issue” or “That doesn’t work” or “If we would do it that way it would be easier”. These people know the process so well that they actually tell you what the improvements can be. You only have to keep your eyes and ears open.
‘User experience and remarks are of crucial importance. If you can visualize them in your flow charts and scripts, you show the users you have heard them, bringing their suggestions to the table, making them visible for the organization and ready to be picked up. Interactions start around the processes.
‘Involving the whole organization is really essential if you want to move towards a continuous improvement mindset.’
How do people then react when they see that they actually are involved and what the result of their involvement is? What is the reaction on the floor?
Maddy Lauwers: ‘They really feel motivated. Seeing their suggestions were taken into account stimulates them to do more. We get feedback like: “You captured a lot in a short period of time”. That’s because we also clarify relations. Creating that transparency, showing people their contributions have been taken into account, giving them insight into the process they partially run are all motivational factors.’
Savings from process transparency around 20 percent
You set up a process in a way that it prepares the organization, or parts from the organization, for any transformation to come.
Maddy Lauwers: ‘Yes. Big and small transformations alike. Small transformations are happening in a continuous improvement mode, where people do not stop doing things differently, but collaborate and continuously build ideas. Typically, young people like that way of working because they can have real impact.
‘For big transformations you need transparency on the level of people, processes and systems. The process is laid out in the tool we use. You add systems as the instrument a process is executed with, as well as the people that steer the transformation in a flexible way.’
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘An organization that wants to keep up with change must improve continuously. For us, continuous improvement is not a Big Bang transformation imposed top-down onto the organization. If anything, it’s a bottom-up process that starts with the people who do the work on a day-to-day basis. In many cases, they know best how to make small improvements. If put together, their ideas will probably be the best. But they need insight into what is exactly being done before and after them. They need to understand the bigger picture: how a process fits into the structure of the organization, how roles traverse processes and functions. '
Maddy Lauwers: ‘You actually need an easy way to initiate improvements. Nobody wants to spend a lot of time in big project meetings or workshops. People ‘just’ want to have impact and move on.’
How does leadership look at this?
Sonja Vanheeswijck: ‘If there is no buy-in and alignment at the top, we don’t even start. That is really essential for us, for all transformation projects. We will frequently tease them to communicate in their organization about the project, the importance of it, the progress made. We always do continuous improvement projects with the whole of the organization. It’s important that the top is transparent about the importance of the project.
Maddy Lauwers: ‘Don’t forget that transparent processes can save organizations a lot of money. In general we estimate the savings from process transparency at around 20 percent.
‘Take the example of an ERP implementation. When companies do big projects like ERP’s, it is typically the provider who starts to describe the ‘As Is’ situation. But if you make the process transparent and do the description yourself, before the project even started, you can explain the ERP provider where your organization actually is, and where you want to go, asking that the provider add specific documentation from the implementation to the system. You save hard dollars and you are in control as well. That’s the bottom line, and it’s a firm one, especially for leadership.’