Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Process Improvement for Nonprofits - Part 2: Ask the Right Questions

Step 2: Analyze the Workflow and Ask a Lot of Questions

Once you chart out the way work flows in your department or organization, study the outline. Does it make sense to you? If it does—especially if you helped design the flow—have someone outside the department review it.

If it does not, carefully go through the outline or flow chart, asking questions such as: “Is this the best way we can operate?” “Do we need to do our work better/cheaper/faster/with fewer people?” "Why does this take so many steps/hand-offs/documents?"

Your goal should be to get the work done with the fewest number of hand-offs, fewest number of errors and omissions, and simplest procedures possible to still accomplish your end goals. Have you done that?

You cannot answer that question unless you truly understand your end goals. If the goal is simple and limited to your department, then your processes may make more sense to your staff. If there are hidden goals that show up elsewhere, such as a data set of historical information created by the daily work of your staff, then make sure everyone conducting this review understands those goals as well. (And do not assume that the outputs from your department are necessarily required to be what they presently are for the other department—they may be happy to see some improvements or changes, in fact.)

Also pay attention to work that is not required by your central mission. Are there tasks that were added to accommodate the short-comings of a single staff person (who may not even work there anymore)? Or to make life easier for a manager without consideration of the cumulative drag on your total work?

For information workers, ask questions like these:
>>>How many times does a single piece of paper change hands?
>>>How many times does someone need information from a paper over the life of that paper?
>>>How often does someone repeat a step that another has done in a prior step in the flow?
>>>Do we have tasks grouped logically so that they are done with the fewest total steps?
>>>Are there better ways to communicate information obtained within the work flow than we are doing?
>>>Is there sufficient accountability and security to ensure information is accurate and not lost?
>>>Are there too many procedures designed to ensure accountability and security?
>>>Does the work flow smoothly?

Interview the front-line staff. Ask the people who do the work all day every day what they think about the processes. They are most often the best sources of ideas on how to work smarter. Your objective is “efficient effectiveness,” meaning you want the staff to be as effective as possible with the most efficiency practicable.

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