06/11/2013 06:44 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2013

Business Process Improvement -- "Nine Blind Men and the Elephant"

Whenever we're asked by clients to explain our approach to Business Process Improvement or Re-Engineering, we invariably begin by telling the parable of the "Nine Blind Men and the Elephant." Here it is:

Nine blind men surround an elephant. Each is grabbing the elephant in a different place. Someone asks each of the blind men in turn "What's an elephant like?" The blind man holding the elephant's tail says, "An elephant is like a rope." The man holding one of the elephant's ears replies, "An elephant is flat, like a pancake." Yet a third blind man, with his arms wrapped around one of the elephant's legs, responds, "An elephant is shaped like the trunk of a tree."

And so on.

The point of the parable is simply this: Each of these men is right -- for his part of the elephant. Yet, in the more important, holistic sense of accurately describing what an elephant is really like, every one of them is ultimately very wrong.

Seeing the "Whole Elephant"
In our view, this parable perfectly mirrors what life is like for so many people who manage a piece of an important business process. All too often, although they are acutely aware of their part of a given process -- the part they "touch" -- they are "blind" to its other pieces and, therefore, completely unaware of what the whole process really looks like. Without this ability to see "the whole elephant," as it were, they also can't ever properly understand how what they do affects this important process or others involved in it. Given this reality, is it any wonder, then, that so many of our business processes are sub-optimized and so much less effective and efficient than they could be?

The Power of Business Process Improvement
This is where an effective Business Process Improvement, BPI, approach can help. The great quality guru, W. Edwards Deming once declared, "A bad process will beat a good person every time." The power of BPI is its ability to provide all the "good people" who touch a given process with the chance to see the "bad process" -- often for the first time -- as a complete whole. Just consider the motivation that results when you empower well-intentioned people to fix something that may well have been making their lives difficult for a long time.

Getting the "Whole System" in the Room
Here, then, are some basic steps to follow to implement an effective BPI approach that we've used successfully with clients for years:

1. Carefully and accurately define the scope of the process you're trying to improve by identifying clear process "start" and "end" points. This ensures everyone knows the limits of the "playing field."
2. Identify the key individuals who make the process work from start to finish. This will almost always, by definition, be a cross-functional group. And that's good, since it ensures that you break through "silos" in your organization.
3. Now, get "the whole system in the room." In other words, announce that your cross-functional group of process owners is a team that you're empowering to analyze and make recommendations for improving the whole process.
4. Next, if your organization doesn't have any process-mapping expertise resident internally, you may want to seek outside help. You'll want to provide your team with someone who can help them to a) accurately map their process, b) identify areas of inefficiency, wait times, "loop-backs," etc. and c) formulate recommendations for improvement.
5. Once your team has created their "process improvement plan," you'll need to give them the support -- "air cover" -- they'll need to make required changes and ensure that these changes really "stick" in your company.

The Payoff of Effective BPI
Of course, the ultimate goal of any BPI effort is significant and quantifiable performance improvement for your business and your customers. Here are just a few examples:

• A banking client of ours reduced the amount of time it took to replace a customer's lost or stolen debit card by over 30 percent. Think of the impact on customer satisfaction.
• Another client, a manufacturer of heavy equipment, saved almost a million dollars by reducing the repair cycle-time for a critical piece of machinery from 60 to 40 days. Consider the impact on the company's bottom line.
• And a chemicals manufacturing company eliminated 18 safety hazards in a rework-handling process with improvements that paid for themselves in only three months.

But it's also important not to forget or understate the very significant and lasting impact that effective process improvement can have on your organization and business culture as well. The banking client mentioned above said it better than we ever could:

. . . This process broke down silos within the company and improved teamwork and collaboration. Just as importantly, perhaps, it has brought understanding among our people of how changes they make can impact other areas of the credit union and, based on this, how important it is to share information/policy/process changes across functions. In short, it has made us a more aware and better-functioning team as an organization.

-- Senior Vice President, Banking Client

We haven't found a better definition of "systems-" vs. "silo-thinking" than this one anywhere.

So break down the barriers between your "good people." Give them the chance to take their "blinders" off and go to work on the whole process that surrounds them. We know from experience you'll be pleased with the results you get.

Ray Gagnon is principal and Founder of Gagnon Associates, a management consulting firm with a long-standing practice in Business Process Improvement, located in Metro-West Boston, Massachusetts, USA.