If you have ever waited in line at the grocery store, you can appreciate the need for process improvement. In this case, the "process" is called the check-out process, and the purpose of the process is to pay for and bag your groceries. The process begins with you stepping into line, and ends with you receiving your receipt and leaving the store. You are the customer (you have the money and you have come to buy food), and the store is the supplier.
The process steps are the activities that you and the store personnel do to complete the transaction. In this simple example, we have described a business process. Imagine other business processes: ordering clothes from mail order companies, requesting new telephone service from your telephone company, developing new products, administering the social security process, building a new home, etc.
Business processes are simply a set of activities that transform a set of inputs into a set of outputs (goods or services) for another person or process using people and tools. We all do them, and at one time or another play the role of customer or supplier.
You may see business processes pictured as a set of triangles as shown below. The purpose of this model is to define the supplier and process inputs, your process, and the customer and associated outputs. Also shown is the feedback loop from customers.
So why business process improvement?
Improving business processes is paramount for businesses to stay competitive in today's marketplace. Over the last 10 to 15 years companies have been forced to improve their business processes because we, as customers, are demanding better and better products and services. And if we do not receive what we want from one supplier, we have many others to choose from (hence the competitive issue for businesses). Many companies began business process improvement with a continuous improvement model. This model attempts to understand and measure the current process, and make performance improvements accordingly.
The figure below illustrates the basic steps. You begin by documenting what you do today, establish some way to measure the process based on what your customers want, do the process, measure the results, and then identify improvement opportunities based on the data you collected. You then implement process improvements, and measure the performance of the new process. This loop repeats over and over again, and is called continuous process improvement. You might also hear it called business process improvement, functional process improvement, etc.
This method for improving business processes is effective to obtain gradual, incremental improvement. However, over the last 10 years several factors have accelerated the need to improve business processes. The most obvious is technology. New technologies (like the Internet) are rapidly bringing new capabilities to businesses, thereby raising the competitive bar and the need to improve business processes dramatically.
Another apparent trend is the opening of world markets and increased free trade. Such changes bring more companies into the marketplace, and competing becomes harder and harder. In today's marketplace, major changes are required to just stay even. It has become a matter of survival for most companies.
As a result, companies have sought out methods for faster business process improvement. Moreover, companies want breakthrough performance changes, not just incremental changes, and they want it now. Because the rate of change has increased for everyone, few businesses can afford a slow change process. One approach for rapid change and dramatic improvement that has emerged is Business Process Reengineering (BPR).