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5 Business Process Management Steps to Optimize Any Process

Dan O'Keefe, Appian
October 10, 2023

Some processes feel like getting teeth pulled without novocaine. Whether it’s excessive data entry, completing onboarding paperwork for HR, or crafting weekly reports, nearly all businesses have some processes that can be better designed, automated, and optimized. Streamlining these processes can help improve operational efficiency, boost the bottom line, and improve morale for business users.

But optimizing processes takes more than tweaking individual tasks. It requires a systematic, effective business process management (BPM) methodology that enables continuous improvement over time. Today, we’ll discuss the business process management steps referred to as DMAIC—an optimization methodology which stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control—that can be applied to almost any type of business process. Read on to learn how DMAIC can help you optimize your processes to achieve your business goals.

[Want a deep dive into continuous improvement with DMAIC? Get The Ultimate Guide to Continuous Process Improvement.]

1. Define.

To know where to go, survey the land around you. Start defining your current state by building a high-level outline of current processes. You can use business process model notation (BPMN) to represent workflows, illustrating the flow of tasks between employees, digital workers, and systems. Start with a high-level overview of your processes in their ideal state; you can delve deeper as you gather more data. 

You’ll also want to define some important goals for your optimization efforts. Make sure these align with your overall business strategy. Do you want to streamline customer service? Automate billing and finance? Improve employee onboarding? Simplify processes for the sales team? Think about where you can achieve real business outcomes. Also, establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to both baseline existing processes and benchmark the improvements you’ll make.

Beyond that, engage any stakeholders who will be affected by these digital transformation efforts. Think broadly across business functions—for customer service projects, also loop in IT, upper management, cybersecurity, and any other departments that might need to be involved. Collaborate with these stakeholders to develop KPIs for their own areas, such as improving customer satisfaction scores, staying under a specific IT budget, or setting an application delivery date.

2. Measure.

Once you’ve defined a rough sketch of your ideal processes, outlined the stakeholders in the processes, and set some important goals, map your processes as they occur in the real world. Process mining tools allow you to identify and extract process data using system event logs, then visualize the data in a generated business process model diagram.

The live data will allow you to see where there might be a bottleneck or a breakdown using real-world information. Unlike speaking with individuals and gathering anecdotal information or imperfect data, you get real, on-the-ground objective numbers that can play into future steps. Second, this data allows you to benchmark your current processes. Then, you can refine your KPIs, set realistic improvement estimates, and prepares to measure enhancements on an ongoing basis. 

[ Want expert advice? Get the Process Mining Guide for tips on process discovery and process optimization success. ]

3. Analyze.

At this point, you’ve mapped the territory. Next, figure out which direction to go by analyzing data. 

Start by analyzing the output from your process model. The BPMN will highlight complex processes, but you can also evaluate the duration of each step to find time-consuming tasks that are ideal for automation technology like artificial intelligence or robotic process automation. Also, make sure to analyze the data to find where processes on the ground do not conform to the ideal business process. You can find hidden processes and workarounds that employees use to get the job done, which often cost the company time and money in the long run. By undergoing this conformance checking, you can find ways to improve the process to create more efficient, optimized processes. 

Engaging the stakeholders identified earlier is crucial, too. Their insights can point out areas for potential efficiencies, offer solutions, and complement the findings from process mining. 

This step emphasizes finding root causes—whether it’s too much manual work that can be automated, consistent errors in processes, a need to recheck work, miscommunications, or any other potential issue. At the end of this phase, you should have a clear picture of the remedies to put in place to optimize your processes.

4. Improve.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Use the output of your previous analyses to investigate and implement solutions to your process problems. This might include implementing new technology, increasing headcount, reducing bottlenecks, or offering training. Make sure to include the stakeholders you’ve outlined in previous steps to help you investigate, decide on, or vet the changes you plan to make. 

Let’s say you want to enhance customer service processes. Your primary KPI is to reduce time-to-resolution for issues (and thereby improve the customer experience). Collaborate with stakeholders across the organization to brainstorm solutions. Look at your process maps from previous steps to find areas where tasks can be automated, which frees workers to focus on effective, strategic work instead of boring, rote tasks. Then, most importantly, implement those solutions, whether they involve increasing headcount, offering job training, or building and rolling out one or more applications.

5. Control.

Maintaining your process gains and continuously improving is just as important as the initial process optimization. The control step is about ensuring processes remain consistent, efficient, and continually meet or exceed the defined KPIs. 

Closely monitor the performance of new processes using the KPIs you established in the define step. This allows you to measure immediate improvements and ensure those improvements are sustainable over time (as well as alert you to potential backsliding). It’s also critical to regularly engage with your stakeholders to maintain a feedback loop. Their hands-on experience can provide valuable insight into any issues. 

Never forget that the DMAIC process is infinite—once you’ve implemented your solutions and measured them, you can either tweak your solutions to further improve these variables or start back at the “define” phase to optimize a new process.

Repeatable business process management steps.

Every organization has processes that can be streamlined or made more effective. Whether you’re a manufacturer with slow-downs on the shop floor, a financial services business with a suboptimal risk management process, or a public sector organization looking to streamline procurement, it’s critical to continuously optimize and improve your processes.

Want to learn more about BPM and its value in your organization? Get The BPM Guide: The Key to Workflow Automation.