Eight steps to design robust start-up processes
Putting robust processes in place will help your business start strong and put it in the best position to scale. Co-founder of Consulthon, Marieta Bencheva, takes us through the best way to develop businesses processes for your start-up and adapt them as you grow.
If you are starting a new business you will have a lot to do and it is easy to get pulled in many directions at once. What is most important is to create strong foundations for your startup and this includes setting up processes that will help you work smoothly and efficiently from the beginning and which you can adapt and change as you grow.
Processes are about more than simply defining what to do, how and in what order. They’re a fundamental part of your company’s culture, expressing who you are, your values, and why you do what you do.
It is important to remember that processes that do not work can lead to numerous problems, such as:
- Customers complaining about poor product quality or bad service
- Team members getting frustrated
- Work getting duplicated or not completed at all
- Increasing costs
- Wasting resources
- Developing bottlenecks, causing teams to miss deadlines
By sticking to clear processes, you maintain consistent quality, service and brand experience from the start of your business.
Let’s begin by looking at the stages for setting up your startups processes well and the key questions you need to ask. We’ll then consider how to problem solve process issue and adapt as you grow.
Getting good processes set up for your startup
“If a picture paints 1000 words, then so does a process map.’’
The detailed fact-based mapping of the current state of your processes will help you identify any issues and risks, so that you can end up with an improved process to start with and save your company from big issues the more you grow it.
- Determine demand and customer needs (inflow)
Question to ask: Who are the customers and their expectations of the process?
- Draw end-to-end process steps (starting with customer and all teams involved)
Question to ask: Why is the process done? What is its purpose? Does everyone involved understand it? What is the outcome of the process?
- Map activities of the process
Question to ask: Lead me through your activities…
- Get capacity and quality data (error rates, rework)
Question to ask: Why is the process carried out by that person/those people? Can somebody else do it as well?
- Get inventory data, if any (waiting times, backlog)
Question to ask: Do we pile, batch, queue anything in our process? What is preventing the work from flowing without stopping i.e. from the start (request) to its completion (fulfilment)? What is stopping us from a smooth process that leads to significant quality, cost and delivery benefits?
- Measure touch, lead and cycle time (detailed measurements of activities)
Question to ask: Do we experience ‘waiting for work’ and delivery pressures on particular employees or tasks?
- Calculate process metrics (e.g. process efficiency, work in progress, rework, hand-offs)
Question to ask: Is the work proceeding continuously, like a river, without interruption?
- Identify issues/waste in the process (e.g. unnecessary steps, rework, inefficient sequencing, waiting)
Question to ask: What are the most common mistakes which occur in the process?
Setting up a process first on paper is the safe thing to do. It is always good to start with a brown paper or Magic Whiteboard. Gather your team and give them Post-its. Using Post-its makes it very simple to move things around. And almost certainly you will want to, because there will be different perceptions on how the process works. It is also likely to be more complex than you think. Tools are available online for remote teams if it is not possible to get everyone together. After you map the process you can always share it by using a process mapping software.
Adapting processes once your business is established
As your business grows you may find problems emerging which lead to customer complaints, frustrations within your team, etc. Working out exactly what the problem is and the root cause of it is a common challenge, but it is also the first and most important step towards finding a resolution and improving processes.
Broadly speaking, there are two main methods for identifying solutions:
- Problem-solving session
- Customer journey/value stream mapping
Let’s take a look at each in turn.
1. Problem-solving sessions
Problem-solving sessions are ideal for when you already know what the problem is but are unsure how to solve it.
The first step in a problem-solving session is to create a commonly understood/agreed description of the problem:
- What the problem is ‒ a simple problem statement
- When the problem has been seen
- The magnitude of the problem
- The impact/consequence of the problem (why is it important?)
You may end up with a specific description, e.g. “we have lost 18% of our clients in the past year”, or a vaguer one: “our profitability is decreasing”. Make no assumptions about the cause at this point!
With a clear description of the problem, it’s time to measure its extent. For this, you’ll need a comprehensive list of value elements ‒ anything that affects your costs or benefits your clients.
Involve the wider team, including a representative sample of people who experience the issue.
A fishbones diagram can help identify the possible causes of the problem. For each branch (i.e. each possible cause) list every element involved in that branch.
Once you’ve clearly articulated the problem and discovered the extent of its impact, you need to identify solutions and immediate fixes.
A workshop is a good way to do this. The outcome will be a range of potential solutions which you can test and implement.
Customer journey/value mapping
If you’re uncertain what the problem actually is, or want to be more comprehensive in your solution-gathering, or to improve processes in general, a customer journey map or value stream map can be useful.
A value stream map visually captures all your current processes down to the last detail.
First create a comprehensive list of your value elements ‒ anything that affects your costs or benefits your clients/customers. If it helps, think of these elements as client touchpoints ‒ times when customers interact with your business.
Next gather data on the monetary and time value of each element; how much are they worth and how much do they cost? How long do they take? How much does this time cost you? As you go through each element, try to identify those that:
- Add value for the customer ‒ things customers are willing/wanting to pay for
- Are business non-value-added functions ‒ things your business needs to operate but which don’t add value, such as regulation and compliance costs
- Do not add value ‒ waste to be eliminated
From this point, you can identify processes that aren’t adding or delivering value and begin investigating why. For example - your sales team may be promising a two-week delivery, but products are delivered after four weeks and customers are upset. The customer may understand, however, and fail to report their experience to you. Here you have a hidden issue that is undermining your business and removing value from your processes.
Get the whole team involved in this discovery stage to help uncover such hidden issues. You could even start with a customer survey to identify any loss of value from their perspectives.
When you have identified the problem(s) it’s time to get on with finding solutions. Again, a team approach is helpful – don’t reject any idea out of hand. Aim to make your processes as lean as possible, to ensure they add value, and are all completely aligned.
Another option is to combine the two methods above. Write your problem statement, then gather client feedback and complete your value-stream mapping. Then run a problem-solving session on each touchpoint in your value stream map to ensure that every touchpoint delivers maximum value.
Regardless of the method, the trickiest part is being objective enough to accurately identify the root issues. To help overcome this and make the process faster and more effective, organisations often hire an external consultant to analyse their current processes, identify issues and offer tried-and-tested improvements. They know all the little questions to ask and the steps to follow to drill into the minute details.
If you don’t have the budget for a full-time consultant, you can consider using a platform like Consulthon to get some free ideas around what the problem may be and how to approach the issue, from expert consultants. You can arrange follow-up calls or meetings with the consultant with the best approach, allowing you to check-in with an expert at key milestones along the way.
When you first create your start-up and at every stage of your business development from then on you need clear processes to maintain consistent quality, service and brand experience. Solving problems and evolving your processes is an essential part of this.
Marieta Bencheva is co-founder of Consulthon, a UK management consulting expert network. Businesses can raise a business challenge and the network’s experts will brainstorm solutions. After selecting the answer they like the most, the business can book a paid one-hour advisory call and deep-dive session with that consultant. All the consultants are vetted by Consulthon and the platform offers businesses access to a wide range of skills, in a variety of sectors and countries.