An 8-step guide for improving workplace processes

Most people know what it’s like to be overwhelmed at work: managing a chaotic to-do list and constant emails, developing a poor work/life balance, putting out fires, and responding to the loudest voice in the room.  

“It’s easy to get caught up in a situation where you’re doing so much firefighting that you don’t even have time to put out the fire permanently,” said Daniel Norton, EMBA ’19, and a co-founder of the software company LeanKit. “You don’t have time to make things better. All you’re doing is just getting up every day and trying to avoid disaster.”

This is a common scenario for knowledge-based workers. It’s difficult for workers to even acknowledge they are struggling, let alone find and fix the source of the problem. And it’s often up to workers to raise their hands and say they are struggling.

Visualizing work processes with tools like Post-it notes leads to efficiency, according to Norton and his classmate Amy Kimball, EMBA ’19. They designed a step-by-step process improvement framework as part of their Organizations Lab coursework at MIT Sloan, in which students apply what they’ve learned to a process at a company. Instead of improving one process, Kimball and Norton developed a method of process improvement that can be replicated and applied to any process.

The idea draws from dynamic work design, a framework created by MIT Sloan Professor Nelson Repenning and senior lecturer Don Kieffer, who leads the Operations Lab course. Dynamic work design makes intellectual work processes visible and easier to improve. 


Step by Step Guide


1 – Identify problems

First, you need to find the problems. For three minutes, each employee writes down at least four problems they see in the organization on Post-It Notes, using one Post-It per problem. Then each person read their problems out loud and stuck the notes on a wall. Problems can’t be solved if nobody acknowledges they exist.


2 – Establish the backlog

Next, ask people to write down as many processes as they can think of that are plaguing them, one issue per Post-It Note. 


3 – Load up the queue

Decide what processes you are going to improve, and in what order. To begin with, Norton and Kimball recommend a manageable number of processes to improve, like five. Early phases of process improvement should focus on low-hanging fruit, or small changes that are relatively easy to implement. 


4 – Map the current process

For the first process, make your work visual by drawing a map of the entire process, from beginning to end, on a whiteboard. Employees should avoid mapping the process as they think it should be, Norton said, and be sure to truthfully outline the current state of things.


5 – Identify one small change

As a team, identify one small way to improve the process. It is best to address areas with ambiguous hand-offs, misaligned incentives, or based on “we’ve always done it this way” mentality, Norton and Kimball said. Suggested changes are best coming from those directly involved in a process. 


6 – Do the experiment

Implement the proposed change and see it through for five iterations. It’s okay if it fails, Norton and Kimball said, or if the team starts making other improvements organically, which is a byproduct of a problem-solving mentality. 


7 – Look back and celebrate success

After the experiment had been completed five times, gather to determine if the experiment was successful. No matter the outcome, Norton and Kimball said teams should celebrate with things like a celebratory lunch or small giveaways after their first process improvement attempt.


8 – Repeat

After celebrating success, it’s time to move on to the next process in the queue. Process improvement isn’t a one-time thing, the researchers said, and instead represents a cultural shift.


Kimball said leadership should set the tone for the process, but those doing the work often have the best ideas. Find the whole step-by-step guide to process improvement, based on Norton and Kimball’s research at Boston VA Research Institute here.

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