5 Pitfalls to Avoid in Process Optimization

Process optimization is of all times. As prehistoric hunter-gatherers, we already developed spears, sharpened rocks and other tools to kill animals and grow crops for our daily food supply. The chances for success (i.e. having something to eat) were greatly improved by using these tools. The food supply process was gradually optimized with more advanced tools and techniques, like hunting in small groups instead of hunting alone, or by pouring water over the crops every now and then. These optimizations served two goals: better results and reduced costs (i.e. less time spent away from the cave 🙂 ).


Process Optimization Defined

In nowadays business, we still apply the same concepts. Process optimization can be defined as “the discipline of adjusting a process so as to optimize some specified set of parameters”. Process optimization should always link back to the heart of your business. The optimization efforts should strengthen the core activities of a company, by delivering better products and services, in a shorter period of time, at lower cost and with less environmental impact.


5 Common Pitfalls in Process Optimization

On average it is estimated that 60‐70% of all process optimizations projects fail. Many of these failures can be linked to one (or more) of the following 5 pitfalls that you should try to avoid if you’re serious about process optimizations:

#1: Unclear Start and finish

If you want to optimize a process, it is essential to understand the current status quo of this process, the so‐called zero measurement. Who is involved in the process? What input and output parameters are being used? What is the average time‐to‐completion for a single instance of this process? How often are exceptions raised, and how are these handled, and by whom? These and other questions need to be addressed before any optimization efforts are being implemented.


#2: Using the wrong KPIs

Key performance indicators or KPIs serve as “signposts” to guide you in the right direction, up to the finish line. Ill‐defined performance indicators will take you off course, as they point your optimization efforts in the wrong direction.

Common issues with “wrong” KPIs are:

  • They are unrelated or only modestly impacted by the process you are trying to optimize;
  • They are multi-interpretable. In other words, the KPIs have not been SMART‐ly defined (SMART as acronym for Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time‐bound);
  • They are not only impacted by your business process, but also by external factors;
  • They are not linked to the overall business goals of the company in any way. So indeed, your process optimization efforts may positively influence your KPI, but in the long run, this is not a guarantee that the improved process in itself now better contributes to the bottom line results of your organization.


#3: Lack of ownership and support

The process owner typically is the one who acts as the driving force behind process optimization projects, as he cares about his process and strives to do a better job each and every day. Clearly, lack of (sufficient time by) a process owner also means that in the end – no one really sees to a successful outcome of the optimization project. Also the lack of C‐level support for process optimization efforts can be quite harmful to the end results of the optimization program. Changes in business processes typically span multiple people and systems belonging to multiple departments, requiring more often than not top-down enforcement – or at least some form of top-down control.


#4: Not embedding process changes

A classical view on changing organizations – and processes – is the “freeze-change-unfreeze” model by Kurt Lewin. First, people need to “thaw” and be made ready for upcoming process changes. Then, the changes are implemented. Finally, the organization needs to internalize and embed the process improvements. When an organization is refreezing again, you will notice that a stable organization chart is in place, with proper job descriptions, enough time for employee trainings and last but not least – a consistent set of process descriptions.

But also in “agile” situations where frequent – or even on‐going – change is on-going, it is essential to make sure that each change is properly embedded within the organization’s way of working and business processes. Clear communication about goals, documenting all changes, and celebrating intermediate achievements contribute to embedding your continuous optimization efforts.


#5: Lack of execution

Before you can improve your business, first understand the current situation (see Pitfall #1) and what you want to see improved (Pitfall #2). However, there is a risk that companies drive this to the extreme, focusing on collecting and analyzing as many data as possible on all kind of processes – even the ones that are not in scope of being changed right now. Complicated statistics ready‐made-for‐consumption through nice dashboards and reports by itself do not improve your bottom line results. What is needed is a means to execute upon business insights effectively, something that makes these insights actionable: a Business Process Management (BPM) system.


Success Factors for Process Optimization

The path to successfully optimizing your processes is full of holes that one can fall into if unprepared. However, one can take a few simple yet necessary steps to ensure you will be doing your process optimizations right – right from the start. If each of these steps is taken into consideration and thoughtfully implemented in your process optimization program(s), your chances for success will become much greater!
These success factors for process optimization (and much more) is described in the whitepaper titled “Five Common Pitfalls in Process Optimization – And How to Avoid Them” which can be downloaded freely at the BPM Leader website.






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By Reint Jan Holterman @ BPM Leader | July 10, 2013

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