When Process Improvement Matters
When is “good enough” good enough? Never! Your practice may be incredibly lean, running at high efficiency, and boasting healthy Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) across the board, but does that mean you should stop seeking ways to improve? Honestly, the answer depends on what you want from your business. If you’re only interested in “staying above water,” then maybe you don’t need to work at process improvements. You have to ask yourself, though – is the water always going to stay at the same level?
Our economy is continually tightening in terms of competition, innovation, and product availability. Your patients don’t have to rely on you to get the vision solutions they need; there are a lot of options for consumers. Many of those options are positioned to leverage incredible convenience (think online). highly competitive pricing (think retail chains), and social proof (think online reviews). If you’re not prepared to keep pace, your “good enough” may become “what happened?”
Small Steps to Big Improvements
One of the things I love most about working with GPN Technologies and the EDGEPro platform is the company’s focus on constantly improving performance in increments, or small steps. The tool really brings that mindset into hyper-focus. As humans, we often respond to frustration by trying to make sweeping changes all at once, or do complete resets, tossing out good things with the rest, and starting over from scratch. There are significant disadvantages to this approach; results are likely less sustainable in the long run, they typically meet with resentment or resistance from team members, and you may end up discarding more “good” than “bad,” potentially creating more problems than progress.
The concept of incremental improvements focuses on taking small steps towards a larger goal and creating success that can be sustained and become permanent; those small steps become part of our daily routine, and then become a platform, or a building block, to taking the next small step. In this way, we build lasting, high-impact change that we can continue to replicate. Just like a weightlifter who slowly increases the amount they bench press, or a runner who trains by adding a little more distance every week. When we bring those same concepts to bear in our practices, the results can be transformative.
Good Processes Lead to Success
The most successful practices I’ve ever worked with have been those where the management, including the owner, have been unafraid to work on their processes. By processes, I mean the flow of work that’s needed to accomplish any given task. That could be in the administration and billing, or in the optical dispensary, or the clinic. It could be hiring, or even something as mundane as the office janitorial. Any process in the office can suffer from neglect, bottlenecks, lack of training, or wrong assumptions. A smart, lean practice is usually run by someone who keeps a watchful eye not just on the results, but on the processes themselves.
There are many obvious symptoms that arise when a process has an inefficient point. These can include delays in service, missed deadlines, “unforced errors,” or complaints from personnel or patients. Less obvious symptoms may include difficulties in performing responsibilities, relying on outdated or manual methods to accomplish tasks, unwieldy chores that everyone dreads – like taking inventory or reconciling accounts, miscommunications, or multiple people using different variations on the same process.
Even if there are no obvious symptoms of process hiccups, there may still be ways to improve them. Just because everything seems smooth, don’t assume it couldn’t possibly be better. Critical analysis of your processes on a regular basis will help you stay ahead of the curve in serving your patients and building the health of your business.
Start with Process Analysis
Before you can improve a process, you need to understand it. This means you need to do a little digging, uncover the why’s and what’s that are driving the specific behaviors of your team. You may need to explore the same process with more than one person; sometimes people do the same job differently. This might mean one of them is performing that job more efficiently than the other, or perhaps each has something to offer, but at different stages in the process. It’s important to not make wholesale judgments, like “This whole thing is a mess. Toss it out and start over!” You’ll get further if you come from a point of understanding what is working well, and why someone has chosen this specific path over another, before you begin formulating changes.
Here are the basic steps for process analysis:
Define the Process
Map the steps in your process. Define the suppliers, inputs, necessary activities to fulfill the process, outputs, and customers. Find out where the boundaries of the process lie – what should be outside or inside the scope of activity. Ask yourself the critical question: “Why do we do this? What is this process for?”
You’re looking specifically for as many possible improvement opportunities as you can find. A great source for these is the people performing the process or using it. They will almost always have something to suggest, and you’ll be wise to hear them. You may want to take the time to develop a good “problem statement” and understand what costs are involved with leaving it unresolved. Remember that wasted time and repeated steps are also costs.
Measure for Success
The key to process measurement is designing good measures that evaluate the extent to which the purpose (remember the “why” question on step 1) is being satisfied by the current steps. Who is responsible? How does the process get “feedback?” Feedback could be as simple as the length of time needed to achieve a specific result, or patient reviews.
This is the starting point. Understanding where you are when you begin is critical to making effective changes, not least because it allows you to appropriately respond to and reward progress. You are building a picture of your current state, in order to help you make decisions, but also to measure the effectiveness of your change initiatives.
Creating Process Improvements
It’s important to avoid just “throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks.” If you don’t believe that’s true, try to imagine yourself working in an environment where the management philosophy is to do whatever sounds like a good idea at the time. There’s no structure or predictability to an approach like that. It’s hard to feel secure as a team member when your management is making decisions that can be affected by mood, frustration, or even wind direction. It’s too arbitrary, and you can damage your team, or even your business.
Once you’ve got a solid process analysis to this point, it’s time to step back and think. It’s also an excellent time to engage your team members. They probably have a lot of ideas about how to make your processes better, and those ideas should at least be heard. If you actively involve your team in creating solutions, you greatly increase the chances that they will buy into your initiatives, and consequently improve your chances of success dramatically.
As you put your plan into action, it’s important to remember two final points:
Establish a State of Control
By this, I mean that you’re “relaunching” your process with a defined process, one that has a clearly stated value proposition (“How does this help my business?”), a way to measure performance, appropriate feedback opportunities, and corrective actions. Most business processes do not occur in a state of control. Here’s a good illustration: a controlled process is growing penicillin in a laboratory. An uncontrolled process is trying to harvest it from something moldy in the back of your refrigerator, where it may (or may not) be growing wild. One process is efficient, measurable, and successful, the other is random, naturally occurring, and prone to failure
Monitor for Effectiveness
I cannot overstate how important this step is. Follow your process analysis with an immediate transition to process monitoring. Keep your eyes, ears, and measuring tools handy, and follow your progress. It’s highly likely that you will need to tweak a few things or make adjustments based on your outcomes. Also, your new improvements may very well yield additional opportunities or problems that need to be addressed.
Is it worth it to go through all of these challenges? In my mind, it’s the difference between swimming and treading water. Your practice is going to be in operation every business day this year. At the end of the year, do you want to be in the same place you are today? Solving the same problems over and over, and making no forward progress? Or do you want to get to the end of the year with more revenue, more patients, and happier employees?
You won’t solve every problem you face, but you won’t solve any by ignoring them. Look for your opportunities to improve your practice and take control of your business with great process improvement. The rewards and benefits can transform your bottom line, your team, and your entire business culture. Make your practice a place of value to your patients, your employees, and you.