How to re-engineer business processes in uncertain times

Simon Griffiths Profile picture for user simon_griffiths June 3, 2020
Business process change is hard but the pandemic provides a forced opportunity to rethink what we do. Here's why and how.

volunteer packing food
Volunteer food packing (Simon Griffiths)

Ask any business process consultant to identify the hardest part of their job and almost universally they will tell you it is the change management element. Change is hard for several reasons, not least being the fact that once people know what they're tasked to achieve and are proficient at their tasks they see little reason for change. Change is often painful and once experienced, there is a natural tendency to treat it as one to avoid in the future. 

There is one exception to this general 'rule' and that's when an existential crisis occurs. In this context, the near death experience of IBM in 1993 is instructive. Fast forward to 2020 and COVID-19 provides a set of circumstances that has everyone thinking about business models, modes of operation, workplace practices, policies and a myriad other issues. This time, it isn't one company or industry that's impacted. COVID-19 is unique in that its impacts arise on a global scale. Even so, we routinely see companies that struggle with change. How does my experience as a volunteer for an NPO inform this troubling topic. Here's the story. 

During lockdown I have been volunteering to help pack food parcels for disadvantaged people in a local township here in South Africa. When we started there were only a few volunteers. Each person collected a packet, opened each food box, picked up each item and then put the packet in a pile. It wasn't particularly efficient but it worked. As more people arrived to help, we realised we had to adapt the process. As happens from time to time, one of the volunteers is a business consultant and we naturally fell into talking about process re-engineering as we had to change the process, actors and locations as more people arrived.

Reflecting on this experience, it occurred to me that the processes which businesses have followed over the years may no longer be practical as workplace restrictions and physical distancing brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic continues. The restart of business will happen in waves, therefore processes will similarly change and will have to be reviewed and updated as things start moving again. The potential for flare ups and additional lockdowns also looms large. 

Business processes

Hammer and Champy's 1993 book, Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution, changed the focus of business towards Business Process Reengineering (BPR). Business process management is a well established practice and function within organizations. However and for reasons outlined above, I expect hardly any business have got into the habit of frequently reviewing and refining their processes. COVID-19 changes that (sic.)

As businesses get going again they won't be able to operate in the same way because physical distancing and other newly instituted policies to inhibit the virus will require new workplace practices and processes. Those policies won't stay static. As lockdowns get less severe, and health and safety regulations get updated, the practices and processes will need to change, again and again.

A real-life case of continual process innovation

The experience of packing food was for me a real-life case of continual process re-engineering. We started off with each person performing the full cycle of unpacking and picking up each food item. But as more volunteers arrived we formed two teams and multiple stations. One team, the unpackers, were allocated to one food item at their own station where they unpacked then handed out items. The other team (collectors) moved around the stations with a box collecting each food item. At the end, we all got involved clearing up all the packaging waste that was left. Then we got cleverer.

Another seminal book on business processes was Thomas Davenport's 1992 book, Process Innovation: Reengineering Work Through Information Technology. In it, he noted that in order to change you need process innovation, and a key to that is technology.

To make the collectors more efficient we gave them trolleys - technology - so they could move around with more than one box at a time.Then we split the first team (unpackers) into specialist unpackers and those who handed out the items. In that way we didn't have to wait while food was unpacked before it could be handed out. When the people unpacking finished, they then moved to clearing up the waste packaging so that when the boxes were filled we didn't have to stay around too long to clear up.

And that wasn't even the end. Each day we refined the process, team responsibilities and locations. We did so because we had to and for the greater good. 

We also learnt two other things:

  • The importance of letting individual team members come up with their own process innovations using their initiative, without having to be told,
  • How kaizen, gradual process improvement, can be made part of a culture so that everyone participates.

How business will change with the new abnormal

It is unrealistic to think that in some future period that business will return to where it was. Sure, some things will remain the same but for many people, the new abnormal will be different to their pre-pandemic experience. Accepting the need for change is a first step. 

Businesses, particularly manufacturers and distributors, will need to be adaptable as economies start up again. They almost certainly won't be able to re-institute all the processes that existed before the pandemic began.

Managers and supervisors can help by setting up some practices and policies but they will have to keep reviewing and possibly changing them to adapt to new circumstances. However, managers and supervisors can't expect to have every good idea. They must be prepared to receive and implement suggestions from their staff. How for example will business accommodate relatively vulnerable members of the workforce with remote working opportunities? How will workplace rotation function? What if nearshoring becomes more important?

As processes change, so will workstations. In the beginning, there may be fewer workstations doing more activities, and then as new ideas come in, so those workstations will increase and specialise.

Don't expect to get everything right first time. Learn by practicing often and making mistakes. In some ways, we are effectively rebuilding processes from scratch and that's OK. 

What do you think? Does my microcosm experience make sense in a wider context? What kind of problems do you expect to come across? How will you define success?

Disclosure - While Simon Griffiths has an employer, this story was written based on recent, personal experience arising out of COVID-19.

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