Business Process Improvement from a Software Development Perspective

Every business should be doing some form of continuous improvement.

It’s a core business best practice based on the notion that businesses can optimize efficiency, thereby achieving greater success through the cumulative effects of small incremental changes.  Yet, Continuous Improvement systems such as Lean, Six-Sigma, Kaizen, and Kanban that have come out of large companies can be intimidating.  The buzzwords alone can be enough to make your head spin.  Regardless, we all know that if you stand still in business you will eventually lose.  So, how do you get started with continuous improvement without getting stymied by the buzzwords?

In our business world, we have found it best to start small.

The Lean manufacturing approach and Six-Sigma evolved from large enterprise improvement efforts that take months or years to implement and produce rewards.  They involve intense involvement throughout complex organizations and a significant focus and executive support to be successful.  No doubt, this is the right way to roll out an enterprise-wide program across a large organization.  However, principles of continuous improvement, the essence of all of these systems, can be applied on a much smaller scale and grown from there.

Start with a small group.

For a small or medium business, this could be at the department or team level spearheaded by a manager or director.  It’s important to have active participation and ownership by everyone on the team.  If you are a micro-business, this might be your whole team.  If you are an individual entrepreneur, form a committee of advisors who are not your direct competitors and can act as a knowledgeable sounding board.

At our company, our software development team implemented bi-weekly continuous improvement meetings that last no more than an hour.  This has improved the team’s communication and understanding of shared goals.

Find the things you and your team wish would work better.

Develop and/or review team goals.  Envision your ideal operational state.  Celebrate what is working well and identify how it could be even better.  Find your current pain points, asking questions like:

  • What takes longer than it should?
  • What seems more complicated than it needs to be?
  • What gets in the way of completing competing priorities? 

Through their continuous improvement meetings, our development team identified a time-wasting disconnect between our work timer and billing system that was increasing our overhead cost and not providing timely information for workload and revenue management.  

Problem Solve, Prioritize, and Act.

Decide where to start.  What might be easiest to accomplish?  What would have the most positive impact?  What is most important?  What is most urgent?  What is affordable?  What expertise can be drawn on internally or externally?

As much as we wanted to replace the timer with an integrated system that would give us real-time views into our project time, the truth was that such a system was not, at that point, a high enough priority to incur the expense of buying and implementing a new, more complex system.  Instead, we identified the root of the issue: with our system, we had to adjust each time record manually before billing and this was too time-consuming to be done regularly.  We figured out we could solve that small piece of our challenge by writing a script to edit the exported time records and round them to quarter-hour increments before we imported them for invoicing.

Review results.

Did you achieve what you set out to do?  How did the process go?  What did you learn?  What do you want to try next?

In our example, we are now able to quickly import time records any time we want and have improved our ability to track our expected revenue during the month.  We were able to accomplish this quickly, with a small change in our processes.

In a future post, we’ll introduce you to a lightweight framework for managing this process and reflecting on how to improve it and manage other items for improvement.

The key to our successful change was looking closely to find our core need and finding a simple way to make it work a bit better.  In this case, it was automating just one step in the larger process that proved to be the major bottleneck.

There are times when process changes alone can achieve improvements.  In the case of the RIS timer problem, a simple custom software solution was the key.  Today, in the age of information systems and data-driven decision-making, business process improvement is often made possible through information system improvements.

RIS specializes in information systems that support business operations across industry types and company size.  We work closely with our clients to help them achieve their continuous improvement goals through incremental information systems development.  We call it IISD.  No, just kidding.  No intimidating buzzwords here.  RIS works the way you need us to work and in a way you can understand.  To learn more about what we can do for you, contact us below!