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Business Process Improvement: How to Get Started

Rachel Nizinski, Appian
March 21, 2024

Business process management solutions often tout their analysis and optimization capabilities, but few provide the full set of tools needed to build a process, measure its performance, and identify and implement improvements. And when you’re looking for information on how to optimize a process, it’s easy to quickly get lost in the information-overload about the best methodologies and tools.

That’s likely because the answer to process improvement isn’t straightforward. Processes are variable. They’re complicated and sometimes even messy. And they usually look different at every organization—even when they’re aiming for the same outcome. 

Despite these differences, there are a few common steps, types, and solutions that can help you navigate the entire end-to-end business improvement process. If you’re looking for a straightforward, no-frills look at the basics of process improvement, this article is for you.

Key steps for business process improvement.

Business process improvement is a series of steps you can take to get more value from your organizational processes. Usually, regardless of the type of process you’re trying to improve, your approach will consist of these general steps:

  1. Discover: Determine how your current process runs.
  2. Design: Evaluate how the process could be improved, using what-if scenarios and process maps to see how individual changes will impact the process as a whole.
  3. Execute: Put your process design into operation.
  4. Measure: Track your entire process and gather statistics on process performance.
  5. Optimize: Use your analysis to determine whether further improvement is possible.

The key here is to continually evaluate your processes over time so you can make incremental improvements that keep your workflows up-to-date and running smoothly. Using an established framework for continuous improvement can help set you up for success with tested process improvement techniques.

[For a more detailed exploration of continuous improvement, download the Ultimate Guide to Continuous Process Improvement.]

Most digital transformation initiatives involve some sort of process improvement goal. And if you've done the work of defining and measuring your as is process, process improvement can provide valuable insights and long-lasting benefits, such as reducing human error and increasing employee satisfaction, and providing better customer experiences. By continually improving processes over time, you can ensure that they evolve as your business goals and needs change. 

5 common types of business process improvements.

1. Digitizing paper-based work.

Some process tasks can be optimized simply by using digital documents instead of actual paper. Digital documents provide a number of improvements all at once: they take up less physical space and are easier to search for, track, deliver, and secure than paper. You might, for example, opt to collect information through a web portal or use intelligent document processing (IDP) to quickly sort and categorize information.

[Manage any process, from ad hoc to the most structured. Check out the case management guide to see how. Download the guide.]

2. Automating manual processes.

Many business process improvement efforts involve automation. This reduces the need for human intervention in business processes so that employees can spend more time on cognitively involved work like complex decision-making. Organizations can use process automation software with capabilities like robotic process automation to execute repetitive tasks or AI chat assistants to quickly scan and find relevant information about a document, data set, process, or case.

[ Get more in the BPM Guide: The Key to Workflow Automation. Get the Guide. ]

3. Improving collaboration.

Most business processes involve some form of collaboration, usually happening between cross-functional teams and across different channels like chat, email, and file drives. Organizations looking to improve shared work processes can create dynamic apps that enhance collaboration with built-in features, such as comments, tags, attachments, and AI conversation summaries.

4. Centralizing data access.

Data access is a persistent challenge for nearly every organization. With an ever-evolving list of apps and processes that are used to complete work, data can quickly become scattered. Connecting and unifying data can save hours of work for employees who need information in multiple systems—which is why improving data access is a common business process improvement initiative. Organizations looking for better data management solutions without complex migrations might use a data fabric, for example, which can quickly connect and unify data across multiple sources and surface that information in a single place for better data management.

5. Improving process and business insights.

Tools that monitor and evaluate data and workflows are key to successful process improvement. And investing in better enterprise intelligence tools is one of the best ways to make sure that the effort is worth the reward. Organizations looking to improve their evaluation processes often use tools like process mining to uncover process inefficiencies, run root cause analysis to identify the cause of process issues, and measure the outcome of process changes.

Business process improvement solutions.

There are three main options to evaluate when looking for business process management or improvement solutions: home-grown apps, out-of-the-box solutions for a specific use case, or platforms for building end-to-end processes and apps with low-code. 

Out-of-the box solutions can work out well for individual processes or departments, but they usually fall short in delivering the flexibility needed to quickly change processes and optimize them across different areas of the business. And while in-house applications built from the ground up can provide more customization, they usually take a long time to develop and can sometimes fail to meet business needs without careful planning and testing. 

A platform approach resolves both of these issues, providing speed and flexibility to quickly launch customized apps that are easy to evolve over time. Businesses looking to optimize their processes, get it right the first time, and avoid wasting development time and resources are turning to platforms with all the capabilities needed to design, automate, and optimize a process with low-code. These solutions go beyond traditional BPM, business intelligence, or process mining tools by combining them into one unified platform for managing processes end to end.   

Looking to improve your processes? Get the eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Continuous Process Improvement.