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Getting Results from Process Improvement


Many banks have been fighting for their lives since the financial crisis began in 2008 – focusing on improving credit quality, finding capital and persuading the regulators to release enforcement actions. As the economy slowly improves and bank balance sheets stabilize, boards and CEOs will start to focus on growth opportunities and improving their banks’ operating efficiency. With challenging revenue prospects going forward and increasing compliance costs, banks need to reduce the cost of their operating models while improving customer service and sales. This requires a laser-like focus on process improvement.

Reviewing your organization’s processes increases the likelihood that you can eliminate redundancy, reduce risk and expense, address regulatory requirements and take advantage of technology to better serve your banking customers.

Critical Questions

Before embarking on the process improvement journey, there are several things your organization can do to prepare for a successful project launch. How would you answer these questions?

  • Does your executive management team fully support this effort?
  • Does your organization have a culture that rewards achievement?
  • Does your organization understand how to and have the capacity to manage change?
  • Do your processes impact other departments? Do you have their support?
  • Do you have the right people aligned with this project?
  • What outcomes do you expect from this project?

Process improvement, by definition, opens up an organization to question why it does things a certain way. The support of management is critical to the success of these initiatives. Leadership must champion the value of becoming process-focused and provide the necessary resources, both time and money, to enable the success of the program.

Additionally, executive management needs to focus on process improvement as a core initiative and tie it to the strategic vision and shared goals of the company. In doing so, you ensure that process improvement is part of the core communications of the leadership, has the continuous focus of the management team and becomes part of the culture and fiber of the organization.

From the lowest paid employee to the top levels of management, a passion for doing the right thing breeds success in a company. Organizations that would benefit the most from process improvement often struggle with this prerequisite. Organizations benefit from a rewards and recognition program to recognize those employees that embrace the program early since improvement rests with the employees who perform the processes.

Process improvement is only successful if the people who do the work are fully engaged and embrace the change. One of the biggest obstacles to success is resistance from those who may benefit the most. Organizations that are successful at process improvement have change management as a core discipline. In order to prepare your organization, embed a process that evaluates the impacts to each department. Appoint project liaisons from each functional area that can interpret these impacts and provide insight into how to introduce the change to those employees affected. Your project plan should address training and communication to those employees.

Second, ensure that affected employees have the time and training they need to learn the new methods. They need to know that management supports time away from daily activities if it is dedicated to learning new skill sets. Additionally, be aware that organizations can only absorb so much change at one time. Time your initiative so that impacted employees have time to adjust.


Cross-functional Evaluation

One of the cornerstones of successful process improvement projects is to select the processes to study and then define where they start and where they end. When one particular department is sponsoring the improvement initiative, it is easy to become internally focused. However, it is important to understand why you are selecting the process to improve. Errors, complaints, timing of results, etc. are all common pain points that process improvement initiatives aim to resolve. Rarely, however, does the same department own the start point, handoffs and end point. Truly transformational change comes from evaluating an organization’s processes across functions. This requires interdepartmental involvement and a commitment to the same vision and goals through proper resourcing and support.

While all of the prerequisites for a successful process improvement initiative are important, having the right people leading and participating in your project is absolutely critical to its success. So how do you select the right people? Think about your organization and the people within it and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who within our organization is already improving processes on an informal basis?
  • Who amongst our employees has the credibility and courage to question the status quo?
  • Are there natural leaders within the rank and file that can establish rapport easily with other departments?
  • Which employees understand our business and have the ability to capture processes and document them?

While your employees may be great at what they do, experience has shown that most are not good at documenting what they do and explaining why it is done that way. Flourishing process improvement programs select employees that have the respect of their own team, can establish rapport with other departments, have the trust and credibility with management to question and interrogate current processes and can document them with the level of specificity required by the project team.  Lack of properly qualified participants in your project will quickly grind your program to a halt.

Process improvement is a journey and depending on the state of your organization it may take several iterations to achieve the smooth running, well-oiled machine you are envisioning. Triumphant project managers will plan for a series of early wins that will help sustain the commitment within your organization and lay a foundation of success. However, understand that this is a multi-year voyage that requires patience and commitment to achieve the long-term vision that enables a series of early wins to grow into an engine of continuous improvement.

Regardless of your approach, any process improvement effort gets dated without a culture of continuous review. The organizations that truly embrace process improvement are evaluating their processes on a regular schedule, reviewing the processes with their business partners and auditing how the employees perform their jobs against the documented processes.

Ms. Kroeger is a senior consultant with Chicago-based Fifth Star Consulting. She can be reached at [email protected].