Process Improvement and Technology: A Winning Combination

May 23, 2022

It seems like everywhere you turn these days you hear “there’s an app for that”. New technology, new software and new applications are popping up every day. The same is true in legal technology.  For legal aid, stretched by more clients than they can serve and resources that do not expand at the same rate, it’s tempting to see a new piece of tech and think “THAT will solve my problem with (insert challenge of the day here)”. It might, but odds are, it’s only part of the solution to your issue.  

There is no question that technology can make many of the tasks we do every day easier and faster. That’s a great thing! However, technology, on its own, can’t answer questions like “who is the best person to be doing this task?” or “do we still need all of the steps in this task?” or “why do we do this thing this way?” If an organization implements a technology solution without considering all of the process that is built around the task they are seeking to automate, whether that process was built intentionally or not, sometimes the end result is just a bad automated process. More often, organizations that do not conduct process analysis when implementing a technology solution do not realize the full potential of the solution they spent scarce dollars on.

Thomas H Davenport and David Brain, in their Harvard Business Review article “Before Automating Your Company’s Processes, Find Ways to Improve Them” were examining the implementation of an automated process in the financial industry. Their article states this about failing to conduct process improvement before implementing a technology solution: “implementations support the “as-is” process, with no improvement or examination of the current process steps that are automated. As a result, they may achieve modest savings, but in many cases they will miss out on opportunities to dramatically improve process outcomes, quality, costs, and cycle times.”  Legal aid organizations rarely have the luxury of investing in things that do not yield full value.  

Business processes can come to exist in different ways. Sometimes they were carefully designed to support a manual process. Sometimes they simply “evolve” to meet a need that the organization has. Sometimes they were developed quickly as a “bandaid” to fix a process that wasn’t working or to address a time critical situation. Think about it and ask yourself how many of the processes put in place to support remote work when offices were shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic were carefully designed. And how many of those have evolved during the past 2 years? That’s the thing with process. It ages and evolves over time. Sometimes those evolutions are intentional, sometimes they’re the result of someone finding a shortcut, and sometimes no one is sure why the process changed. Regardless of the reason, processes have a “shelf life” and need to be reexamined periodically to ensure that they are efficient, necessary and workable.

Business Process Improvement and technology solutions have a symbiotic relationship, each supporting the other to help organizations accomplish their mission. Making the decision to invest in a technology solution is the perfect time to also analyze the process that the tech will support. Doing so ensures that the process is optimized to get the most out of your technology dollars and to help ensure that you are purchasing the right solution for your needs. Likewise, applying BPI methodologies to your workflows often brings to light an opportunity for automation or a technology solution. Regardless of which path brings you to a technology implementation, ensuring that the processes that will support that tech are optimized will yield the best results for your staff and your clients.

How does it work?

Business Process Improvement (BPI) provides a structured framework for looking at processes end to end. Using tools like process mapping and root cause analysis with those team members who actually perform the process in question, BPI identifies places where there are bottlenecks, redundancies, lack of clarity, outdated practices and the like. The team then works to resolve these issues, resulting in an updated, clear and efficient process. Once this work is complete, it is much easier to implement a technology solution. The entire system -process and tech -are then optimized to work together to deliver the most bang for your buck.

Enginess, a technology strategy company, puts it this way: “Automation is fundamentally a tool rather than a strategy. Looking at your process and automating before you consider what improvements you make is akin to buying a frame for a house before you’ve talked to an architect. You must have something to automate before you get to the automation step. And if you automate the wrong thing, you’ll accelerate inefficiency rather than eliminate it, creating a complicated mess that is time-consuming and arduous to untangle.”

Consider intake.

Intake is the gateway to service for most legal aid clients and an area which many legal aid organizations see as ripe for improvement. But where to start? There are many automation options - call centers, SMS and online tools, data collection tools, and tools available in the organization’s case management system to name a few. How does an organization know which tools will make the biggest impact on their intake system?

This same rationale applies whenever organizations are considering purchases of workflow automation software, including document automation, communication software and others.  Doing the work up front helps ensure that the team is prepared for a technology solution, that a technology tool is the right answer, that the right technology is purchased and that implementation goes as smoothly as possible.  BPI in combination with technology is a great way for a legal aid organization to hedge its bets.

If you want to learn more about BPI and technology implementation or you are curious about how to get started, contact us.

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