What are the right questions to ask when creating a new business system and developing a process flow chart?
Whether you work on your own or in a large team you will inevitably develop some processes to help you with your work. The problem is few people know how to develop a new business system or how to create a process flow chart to illustrate what they want to happen.
Systems, procedures and processes (when working properly) help us to be efficient in achieving our goals. They can help us save time and money as well as assuring quality or reducing risks.
Many systems in businesses are things that will evolve organically – without much real planning – but there will also be times when something is not working well and you will need a more formal approach to improve and existing process or to create a new one.
Here I will demonstrate how you can use The Right Questions format to help analyse a procedure and develop a new system so that you can be sure it will be effective. We will also look at how to create a process flow chart.
To help explain the application of The Right Questions format I will use the example of a theoretical hotel as a case study. If you would like more detail on each of the questions (where, what, why, how, when, who, which) then just click on the links in the body of the text as you read through or select a topic from the menu bar on the right of the screen.
Where are we now and where do we need to be?
First we look at our present situation. What is the present workflow and what is the problem that has been identified the means a process is needed?
Let use the hotel example to explore the question: The hotel receives new bookings on a daily basis and needs rooms prepared and cleaned every day too. Here the challenge is that the manager who takes the bookings is not the same one that manages the cleaners, who in turn prepare the rooms. Therefore there needs to be a communication process in place so that everyone knows what to do and when.
So that is the situation, how about the other side of the question: where does the hotel want to be in terms of service?
Ideally all of the rooms should be cleaned and prepared so that guests feel welcome when they arrive and the should be team happy because everyone knows what they are doing without having to ask.
What does success look like?
Next we need to define what we need to achieve. In the case of the hotel we have identified that:
- Customers need to feel that they are getting a good service
- Therefore they need clean rooms when they arrive
So our mission statement or definition of success for this process could be: rooms need to be cleaned (on time and to the correct standard) in order that guests feel welcome and properly served.
Why do we need the process?
From the situation we should be able to draw out some reasons behind the process. In the case of the hotel we can identify the following values that relate to what we are doing:
- Customer service – making sure the guests are being looked after
- Effective team work – people know what to do and when
- Efficient management – the managers do not need to be interrupted or intervene over little details
Now we can look at the steps or activities that have to take place for the process to work. One effective way to look at these tasks is using a flow diagram or flowchart. In a flowchart you can break down the process into the key component parts including any decisions that might affect the outcome.
Using the hotel example this might look like this the flowchart on the right.
Now we have identified the current steps in the process we can analyse it better. Now we can see the workflow we can start to ask questions like: are there any steps missing? Are there any short cuts that could be created? Where are the problems?
In terms of problems, processes usually fall down at the interfaces; the places where a job passes from one party to another. This is something we will come back to.
When do the steps of the process need to take place?
As well as establishing all the tasks that need to take place we also need to work out when they need to take place. Which tasks are time critical? What are the deadlines?
Now we have the flowchart it is easier to work out the time needed for any one task and create a timeline alongside it with any deadlines or decision points that are critical to achieving the aim.
In the hotel example, bookings and the preparing of rooms is a daily task. It is simple to work out how long each task takes but complications arise around other time issues.
Firstly bookings can come at any time. Secondly, the deadlines here are created by the arrival of guests, but some guests may arrive in the morning, others in the afternoon or evening. Thirdly, staff are not all on duty at the same time so there is no single moment in the day for communicating what needs doing.
Who is involved in the process?
Each step should be assigned to a party. That person or team needs to own that task and make sure it is completed so that the next step can be completed by whoever takes over. Once again, breaking down the process into a flowchart makes the identification of these parties much easier. Responsibilities and expectations for each stakeholder can now be specified.
For the hotel example different colours have been used in the flowchart to highlight the different people involved in the process (Manager 1, Manger 2, the Cleaners and the Guests).
Which different ways can we achieve the aim?
There will be different ways to solve a problem so it is worthwhile taking some time to look at the options. Going through this process with the team or the people who will be affected by the process is an excellent way to engage people with the change. It will help them to understand the need for the change, take ownership of it and also help to generate new and creative ways to solve the problem.
By identifying the exact steps and interfaces where a process is not running smoothly it is possible to hone in and propose alternative solutions for each activity where things aren’t running smoothly.
In the case of the hotel’s workflow it has been seen that sometimes Manager 2 is busy with another urgent matter and cannot create the list of rooms that need to be prepared. Equally there can be a problem if Manager 2 is not around when cleaners have a question about preparing the rooms. The third challenge is that Manager 1 is not always informed when a room has been prepared ready for a guest.
Now the exact problems have been identified new solutions can be proposed. Is there a software solution that can inform everybody as soon as a booking has been made? Could there be a noticeboard or whiteboard in a common area where all parties can update the details about the rooms? Could roles be rearranged to make things run more smoothly?
Generally there is no one right answer to making a process work and it will often take the trialling of different options to find the one that works. Also, processes need to change. The growth of a business or changes within a team could mean that a system needs to be reviewed.
One very important lesson to end with is that processes, systems and structures within an organisation are just a means to an end; not the end in themselves. Large institutions often forget this and their processes can grow to become the driving force within the organisation. This should never be the case. Systems should always be checked, challenged and improved. They are only ever truly efficient if they are effective, and they are only effective if they are helping to achieve the overall mission.