Process Optimization: The ultimate guide to streamlining your business

Process Optimization: The ultimate guide to streamlining your business

Want to improve processes at your company? Our guide explains what process optimization is, how it works, and offers tips for implementing change.

In June 2021, HBO Max sent an email to users with this decidedly unglamorous subject line: “Integration Test Email #1.” It was a blooper with unintended (but mostly positive) consequences after an intern pressed the wrong button.

Companies like HBO are simply expected to have their systems dialed. And while HBO’s PR team handled it gracefully by laughing at themselves and poking good-natured fun at the intern, the whole snafu was likely the result of a process failure. You can be sure HBO cleaned up its email act after the incident.

As a phrase, “process optimization” is a bit of a mouthful, and you may not use it in everyday language. But you probably think about the concept more than you realize. When it comes down to it, business processes are simply the tasks you carry out at work every day, and process optimization is the practice of improving them.

From marketing campaigns to manufacturing operations, every company relies on business processes. Big companies with complicated workflows and small businesses with simple ones both count on process optimization to improve their bottom lines.

Regardless of your industry—financial services, healthcare, retail, manufacturing, education, or others—following the right framework can help you streamline business processes, saving your company time and money in the end. And that’s a critical effort, no matter what you call it.

But sticking with the technical terms for now, let’s talk about what it means to optimize processes.

What is process optimization?

Process optimization means making any business process more efficient, logical, and inexpensive. Optimizing a process typically also means using technology to automate key repeatable aspects of that process and remove bottlenecks.

Process automation can happen in a workflow that has two steps, 200 steps, or any number of steps in between. This includes all styles and flavors of paper-based, manual, automated, digital, mechanized, and AI-driven workflows. Here’s one familiar example of a multi-step marketing workflow that includes an element of automation:

  • A new prospective customer visits a company’s website, curious about a service they offer
  • To download a detailed ebook about the industry, the customer hands over their email address (gated content)
  • That email address is automatically added to a marketing database, with metadata tagging it “prospective customer”
  • An automated email is then sent to that person, with a “welcome” message and a promo code for a first purchase

You’ve probably been on the receiving end of this type of marketing process automation.  Some degree of automation is built into a huge range of business processes, from customer service to HR recruitment to financial transactions.

When you improve the way you’re doing things, using technology integrations to automate aspects that don’t need to be handled by a human, you get things done faster, and often, more economically. For this reason, process optimization lies at the heart of any company’s quest to operate more efficiently and scale up.

For most business processes, there are typically multiple stakeholders. In a marketing workflow, for example, there might be project managers, copywriters, graphic designers, web developers, social media managers and others running some aspects of the process. How efficiently all of these people work together toward an outcome depends on the design of the process. You’ve probably heard the term “design by committee.” When you throw people into a room and ask them to collaborate, the outcome is a jumbled mess of inputs and outputs. There might be plentiful resources, but there’s no unifying vision.

If you were to take a stab at optimizing this sort of process, you’d probably start by designating a formal input-gathering session. There, you might realize that certain priorities weren’t clear, or some ideas weren’t properly tested. By looking carefully at each step, and committing to process improvements, you’d end up with better collaboration, faster execution, and reduced costs. These are all general benefits, but let’s get more specific.

How to implement process optimization

Optimization is a journey, but the following tasks provide the foundation.

1. Map your existing processes

Grab a whiteboard, a notebook, a tablet, or your phone and start detailing processes that need obvious improvements. Look for areas of your business where things just don’t seem to be running smoothly, or where you have a hunch there is money to be saved. For instance, within the human resources organization, you may see several processes that could stand to be refined:

  • Sourcing and hiring candidates
  • Onboarding new hires
  • Holding  exit interviews for departing employees
  • Executing payroll

Where should you start? Choose one that has the most obvious gulf between what’s happening and what’s possible. Maybe it’s the place you see a huge capacity for gaining benefits by changing the process. Or it’s an area people in your organization complain about a lot. Perhaps payroll is rife with errors, and you believe automating certain parts of the process could help.

Now, map out your existing process. What are the exact steps it takes to get the job done? Who is involved? Think about the contingencies — for instance, Susan can’t sign payroll checks until Martin prints them out.

Where do you see redundancies? Where do you see glitches? In other words, where do you need optimization?

2. Collect and analyze data

That first task was subjective, but you’ll want to consider doing some objective data-gathering so you’re making decisions based on facts. This step can also help you hone in on what processes to prioritize changing. Here, you’ll seek input from other stakeholders and process owners to find out which processes they have issues with, both based on their opinions (for instance, by surveying them) and on other factors such as timelines, project costs, and error rates. By gathering all of this sort of data, you gain an objective perspective into what’s going wrong.

Along the way, track all your findings in an Airtable base, which lets you view your data in different ways and filter to specific attributes, with at-a-glance dashboards.

3. Force-rank your priorities

You might have a lot of ideas about what needs to be done differently within processes across your team or organization. Realistically, you’ll need to rank them in priority order. You might do this based on what seems most broken, or by which processes stand to gain the most from change.

We call this decision-making exercise force-ranking priorities, for obvious reasons. Using both the subjective input and the objective data you’ve gathered, prioritize what needs change the most. That means two things:

  1. Which process needs attention first
  2. Which features or steps within that process most need changing

The crux of your efforts should go toward fixing the most problematic processes. Once you can clearly grasp of the biggest issues in your workflows, you now have an opportunity to fix them.

4. Roll out changes

Use the data you’ve collected to shape the changes you’ll roll out. For instance, your hiring process involves a manager sorting through incoming resumes, that’s a glaring inefficiency. Consider adopting an automated HR technology that can pre-sort resumes, then ask an assistant to cull through the short stack.

Implementing change often requires a secondary process called change management, which helps to set expectations and properly train workers on new processes. Having a “plan for the plan” encourages everyone to adopt the new business process quickly and helps them be enthusiastic about the change.

Whether or not you use an official change management process, treat the change like a project and make sure you’re measuring whether it’s effective.

5. Collect and analyze data again

Implementing a new work process is often iterative. You may develop an idea for how to streamline work, but you won’t know if it helps until you try it. As you iterate, keep that fine balance of efficiency and quality in mind. Your ultimate goal is to save time and money without sacrificing product quality, good customer service, or employee happiness.

What are the benefits of process optimization?

Optimization brings multiple benefits.

1. More efficiency and higher productivity

"Efficiency" has long been a magic word in business. Ask any organizational leader, and they’ll tell you they’re working on improving their team/department/company’s efficiency. Why? Because inefficient processes eat up resources and budgets. Efficiency means less waste—of resources, time, and materials.

Automating processes inside a business brings efficiency because it reduces manual effort. When you consider that 90% of employees feel burdened with boring, repetitive tasks that could easily be automated, this makes sense. Automating rote tasks frees up human employees to focus on the higher value-add work that requires creativity, innovation, and human intelligence—a better use of everyone’s time.

Some 90% of employees feel burdened with boring, repetitive tasks that could easily be automated.
  • To create efficiency within your workflows with automation, first look at the technology platforms your processes rely upon. Airtable Automations let you build custom automations with no coding required. For instance, you might want to post content to Twitter automatically, without leaving your Airtable base.

Efficiency is a critical metric, but if it’s not balanced with effectiveness, it’s not useful.

2. Better quality

If efficiency decreases the quality of your work, product, or service, it’s not worth it. Conversely, better quality that comes at the cost of wild inefficiency is not a sustainable business model. The two must be in balance.

3. More agility

While efficiency and quality are both highly valued at most organizations, there’s also a third incredibly important factor in optimization: the ability to change course quickly.

Take Tesla. During the COVID pandemic, supply chains were disrupted worldwide—with huge ramifications for automotive manufacturing. The electric vehicle industry in particular was impacted by shortages in the semiconductor industry. Tesla, always an innovator, pivoted its manufacturing process to use microcontrollers and new firmware so that it wouldn’t be disrupted by the semiconductor shortage. The company was able to keep making cars when others couldn’t. This sort of quick change was only possible because Tesla has business processes in place that allow for agility.

With streamlined, efficient processes in place, organizations can adapt much faster, adopting new technologies to meet critical business goals.

“Cost optimization in the age of digital business means that organizations use a mix of IT and business cost optimization for increased business performance through wise technology investments.” -Gartner

4. Time and money savings

According to McKinsey, two-thirds of businesses are piloting the automation of processes in at least one business unit. That’s a higher number than just a few years ago. Companies meeting their automation targets are the ones making it a strategic priority, with an equal focus on people and technology. In a survey of IT leaders, 57% said automation within their organizations saves departments between 10 and 50% on costs.

Automation isn’t the only efficiency technique that saves time and money. Any time a process is streamlined, removing duplicative or unnecessary work, this effort represents savings.

Get started on process optimization with Airtable

Optimization can be an adventure, but it’s worth the effort. And Airtable is an ideal technology platform to support you in your optimization endeavors. Some of the key features that make Airtable ideal include:

  • Customer views for different uses, such as a classic spreadsheet view versus a calendar view or a kanban board
  • Document and data storage so any files associated with the process change are stored with the plans, in one place
  • The ability to manage tasks and track changes right inline
  • Dozens of pre-made templates so you can launch your project without a lot of foundational work
  • Integration with third-party plug-ins that let you to bring in tools your company is already using with your project

Airtable is a flexible, cloud-based, inexpensive platform for all your business processes and projects, helping you put in motion a culture of continuous improvement.

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