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Asking "Why?" for Business Process Improvements—Where to Start

In my first post in the series on “Asking Why”, we covered how asking why is the key to unlocking business process improvements. So, once you know that it is important to ask why, the next logical question is, “where do we start?”

In my previous article, I listed a few classic responses that you might encounter when training at a new organization. However, many of us have been employed at our organizations for many years, with a team of folks that have also been there for a long time. We come into the office, follow a pattern of behavior, and never give much thought to our work, because we’ve done it for so long that we’re on auto-pilot.

Common Scenarios and Identifying Bottlenecks 

Often organizations end up in a circular workflow, where one department isn’t fully completing their part of the work, or someone in the process flow just doesn’t take enough care in their work and those downstream don’t trust the information they receive.  The result is someone (a person or a department) is touching this same data multiple times or rechecking or reworking someone else’s work so they can complete theirs.

business process improvement bottlenecks

Once your organization has identified that there are some improvements that could be made, it’s usually quite daunting to figure out where to start asking ourselves “why.”

Identify a bottleneck in your workflow, for example; is Customer Service held up because inventory is not received so they can’t service customers? Are you missing early pay discount dates because A/P is backed up on data entry waiting for approvals? Do you not trust what your system tells you for quantity on hand inventory, resulting in research or manual counting every time you need to give a ship date?

The Why Improvement Exercise

Beginning with process flows and looking at how things are today is the best place to start. Gather your team in a conference room with post-it notes of different colors, a big white board, some markers, an open mind, and a sense of humor. It is critical that the team recognizes up front that

Brainstorming for business process improvement

To start, take one bottleneck and create a flow chart of how the process functions currently using the post-it notes and markers. Have each person identify their piece in the flow and how it works today. When you start to see where the flow stops or circles back, that is where you ask “why?”

  • Why does the process stop/hold up there?
  • Why does this paper have to circle back to the same person multiple times?
  • Why does Bob have to approve every invoice when only 1% of them need review?
  • Why are we checking numbers we already know are correct?

Note the answers to these “why” questions. If the answer is legitimately valuable to the process and the organization, that’s okay. If it is not, keep asking why, until the answer is “I don’t know.” You may also find that others involved in the flow had no idea what was going on up or down stream and are more than willing to be part of the solution once they realize they were part of the problem!

Most people are visual, and this exercise will naturally lead to the question based on the nature of the discussion. Once you get to the answer “I don’t know,” that’s the opportunity point to improve your business process.

Stay tuned for the next installment in my "Asking Why" series. A few of the areas we will be exploring in future posts are:

  • Whose job is it to ask why? Who leads the charge?
    • Addressing Common Objections
  • How to Make a Why-Friendly Work Environment
  • How to Implement the Why Process with Your Team
  • Next Steps After You've Distilled the Answers for "Why?

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