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Process Improvement in Business (BPI): The Complete Guide

Learn about business process improvement and how it works. Explore top BPI methodologies, key benefits, steps to successful process automation strategies, and how automation tools can help.

What is process improvement?

Process Improvement is the proactive task of identifying, analyzing and improving upon existing business processes within an organization for optimization and to meet new quotas or standards of quality. It often involves a systematic approach which follows a specific methodology but there are different approaches to be considered.

Some examples are benchmarking or lean manufacturing, each of which focuses on different areas of improvement and uses different methods to achieve the best results. Processes can either be modified or complemented with sub-processes or even eliminated for the ultimate goal of improvement.

What is business process improvement (BPI) and how does it work?

Business process improvement centers on identifying opportunities to make your business processes better. Through the years, this seemingly simple concept has inspired loads of theories and strategies on how to do it best. And it tends to get a little messy once you dig in.

But before diving into how you can get started with your own BPI project or improve upon your current efforts, let’s begin with the basics—what is a business process, and how does BPI work? 

At the most basic level, a business process is any set of activities performed by an organization to achieve a goal. It could be something as simple as an email-based customer onboarding sequence or as complex as a banking risk management process.

Business process improvement includes a range of methodologies and approaches to help you discover how a process works, determine how to improve it, implement changes, and measure your success for continuous improvement.

A note on terminology: BPI is closely related to business process management (BPM), but their goals differ. The goal of BPM is to improve processes across an entire organization, whereas BPI is about improving the performance of a specific process. BPI projects are often part of a broader BPM strategy.

Organizations that implement BPI initiatives often do so to boost efficiency, reduce costs, increase customer or employee satisfaction, enhance product quality, increase innovation, or improve risk and compliance management. For most enterprises, this aligns closely with ongoing digital transformation work.

Remember, implementing BPI takes cultural commitment, the right tools, and, most importantly, good data. To know what improvements to make to your process, you’ll need insights about how it’s performing and why issues are occurring. And to know your process improvement efforts were actually successful, you’ll need a way to accurately measure the results. If you’ve tried to implement process improvements in the past without success, continue reading for tips and considerations that could make your next process improvement project a different story.

[ Learn how to successfully implement end-to-end process automation strategies. Get the Process Automation Guide. ]

5 key business process improvement steps.

BPI initiatives vary depending on use case and industry. But in general, every process improvement project follows a variation of these steps:

  1. Define the problem or opportunity for improvement.
  2. Measure how the process is currently performing. 
  3. Analyze the process to identify gaps and areas for improvement.
  4. Implement a plan for process improvement.
  5. Continuously monitor and improve the process.

For example, let’s say you want to improve the customer onboarding process for online account creation. You’d likely assemble a team of customer service, quality assurance, and IT representatives to kick off the BPI project. Then, you could map the customer onboarding process and identify bottlenecks or inefficiencies, like areas with low engagement or drop-offs. To resolve these issues, you might add a customer notification step to remind customers to take the next action. Then, you’d define KPIs or threshold goals for the new notification process to monitor its performance and look for future improvement opportunities.

Business process methodologies: 3 things to know.

Using a structured methodology for BPI provides a common language and framework for process improvement efforts that keeps teams aligned and working toward a common goal.

Methodologies for BPI all provide specific frameworks for implementing a process improvement project. And they all use their own sets of tools and techniques to get there. Most originated in manufacturing but have since been widely adopted by other industries. Choosing the right one ultimately comes down to how closely it aligns with your organization’s specific needs. Continue reading for three tips to help you determine which methodology is the best fit.  

1. BPI methodologies have a lot of overlap but tend to have specialized applications.

BPI methods often share common goals, tools, and values. Some are even combined into hybrid approaches. If you’re just getting into the world of process improvement, researching various methods can be a little daunting. Nevertheless, choosing the right one is an important business decision that requires careful consideration.

Typically, each method emphasizes several different focuses or values, such as being data-driven, increasing customer satisfaction, reducing waste or increasing efficiency, enabling continuous improvement, improving product quality, or increasing employee respect and involvement. To narrow down which approach is best for your business, define the outcomes you wish to achieve with your BPI project. Then, consider how those outcomes match up with different BPI methodologies. 

2. BPI tools will play a critical role in supporting your approach.

It’s also important to consider the resources you have available to support your BPI efforts. Some BPI methods require specialized training or tools while others can be implemented with minimal resources. Considering the time, money, and personnel needed to support each BPI method can help you determine which is the best fit for your project.

Some common BPI tools include: 

  • Process mapping – A visualized depiction of the steps involved in a process, along with inputs, outputs, and other key information. Examples include flowcharts, swim lane diagrams, and value stream maps. This can be done manually or with the help of a process automation platform

  • Statistical process control – An approach for monitoring and controlling a process using a set of statistical methods to detect and prevent defects and other issues. It involves monitoring a sample of the output from a process and using statistical tools to analyze the data.

  • Root cause analysis – Used to identify the underlying causes of problems or defects within your process and develop solutions to prevent them from recurring. This can be achieved manually with techniques like the 5 Whys method or fishbone diagrams or automatically with process mining software.

  • BPM tools – Used to manage and optimize business processes. Examples of BPM software features include workflow orchestration, workflow automation, and business rules.

With a technology like process mining, many of the manual steps and tools in a BPI project can be replaced with automation.

Process mining software can identify inefficiencies and bottlenecks in processes, visualize process flows, and analyze the root causes of process problems, even for highly complex processes that span people, departments, and a messy mix of systems. 

[ Discover how you can align process mining with process automation to drive continuous process improvement. Watch the webinar. ]

3. The right BPI method will closely align with your company culture and business goals.

A BPI initiative involves everyone in an organization, and your company’s culture can have a significant impact on its success. If your culture doesn’t align with your BPI method, it can lead to resistance from employees, lack of engagement, and, ultimately, failure of the initiative. A smart way to get employee buy-in is to ensure that the method you choose blends well with your organization's existing values, communication channels, and technologies.

The same is true for your business goals. As previously mentioned, there is a lot of overlap between each BPI method. But, that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. The team responsible for leading the BPI project should have a deep understanding of your organization’s vision, mission, and strategic objectives to ensure that the processes and methods chosen align with the intended outcome of the project. For example, if your organization’s goal is to increase customer satisfaction, you might use a BPI method that is more customer-focused, such as lean and kaizen.

When thinking about which BPI method makes the most sense for your organization, consider:

  1. What are your business goals?
  2. What is the scope of your project?
  3. Do your resources align with the required tools?
  4. How does the method align with your company culture?

3 business process improvement benefits.

How will you judge the success of your BPI initiatives? 

Improved processes can affect everything from employee morale to revenue. And the starting benefit that comes with process improvement—a better process—can have a ripple effect across your entire organization.

You can think of the benefits in three main buckets and focus on which ones matter most to your business goals. Reviewing and improving processes on a regular basis will:

  • Make your processes faster, more efficient, and more productive, helping to reduce waste, increase throughput, and cut costs, all of which lead to a greater ROI for work that’s already being done. 
  • Lead to better products and more innovation. Strengthening your position in the market as an innovator and leader can help boost consumer confidence and sales, resulting in increased revenue and market share.
  • Improve experiences for customers and employees. Process improvement isn’t good for just your bottom line. It can also lead to better customer service, which boosts brand reputation and increases customer satisfaction and retention. And by creating a culture of continuous improvement, employees are given the tools, training, and resources they need to do their best work. When employees are more successful in their roles, morale is boosted, productivity is higher, and growth occurs more regularly.

How to improve business process improvement strategies using automation.

The unique ability of automation to perform routine tasks and processes without human intervention as well as analyze complex data makes it the perfect complement to process improvement projects. And often, it's crucial for BPI project success. 

[ Want to learn more about process automation strategy? Get the Gartner® report: See which hyperautomation technologies are driving immediate and future business impact in the Gartner® Emerging Tech Impact Radar: Hyperautomation report. ]

By automating repetitive tasks, automation can improve accuracy, increase productivity, and reduce the risk of human error. Not only will this lead to faster, more optimized processes, but it also frees up your staff to focus on higher-value activities. Additionally, automation can provide real-time data that can be used to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies and monitor process improvements, allowing BPI teams to make more data-driven decisions.

Streamline your BPI project with process mining.

Using process mining software can significantly reduce the amount of manual work needed for process analysis. Process mining uses event logs to automatically visualize a process and all of its variants so you can understand how it’s actually being executed. It can also help you uncover bottlenecks and deviations and automatically identify the root cause of problems to take action faster.

Make processes more efficient with bots and AI.

Robotic process automation (RPA) and intelligent document processing (IDP) can significantly contribute to the success of BPI projects. RPA involves using bots to automate repetitive, rule-based processes such as data entry, report generation, and email management. It works by mimicking human actions, such as clicking on buttons, copying and pasting data, and navigating between applications. Process automation platforms with RPA capabilities make it easy for users to design and deploy bots to automate tasks within their business processes.

IDP uses AI to accurately extract data from unstructured documents like invoices, purchase orders, and contracts. Designed to save time and reduce errors, IDP helps streamline workflows by dramatically reducing manual data entry, processing time, and errors.

Improve process management with workflow orchestration.

Workflow orchestration is like the glue of process automation, connecting people, systems, bots, AI, business rules, and data—and it’s a critical framework for organizing processes from beginning to end. It helps you standardize and execute processes in a consistent manner, which is critical for achieving process improvement goals. And it provides you with real-time visibility into the status of your processes so you can spot issues as they arise. 

Continuously improve your processes.

Ultimately, a process automation platform provides powerful tools that can make or break the success of your BPI initiatives. If you choose the right platform, it will enable your technology and people to work together so processes can be completed in the most efficient way possible. It will also build flexibility into your operations so you can quickly adapt to changing regulations, economic conditions, and customer demands. And it can help you more easily scale processes as your business needs evolve without having to add additional staff or resources.

By embracing process automation, you can completely transform your process outcomes, increasing your organization's efficiency, agility, and ability to continuously improve. 

[Learn more about automating your processes. Download the BPM guide.]