Seizing the opportunity – How to drive process efficiency in a virtual world

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, the way in which we do business has changed. Over 45% of the UK workforce switched to working from home, with the figure for office workers even higher. The focus for many organisations has been on how to react which has included identifying the short-term adaptations needed to maintain business as usual.

Historically, many processes within businesses have evolved organically, without quality in mind and with review and improvement activity held every few years. This often involved time-consuming workshops with business Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) with the result that some of the smaller issues were fixed before teams focused their attention elsewhere. This isn’t it cost effective, time efficient, or supportive of ongoing continuous improvement approach.

In this perspective we look at how businesses can drive process excellence in the remote workforce environment. We also highlight how best to drive continuous cost efficiency and quality using the expertise in your current team. 

Driving incremental and continuous improvement can also drive significant change within your business over time. Securing even a 1% improvement each month to KPIs can result in a 43% increase to KPIs within three years. 

As a long-term example, Toyota have embedded a culture of “Kaizen” or small continuous improvements across their organisation. Their rigorous and systematic approach to improving processes has helped it secure its place within the top 10 of Fortune’s Global 500 since 1998. The Global 500 lists the 500 largest companies globally by revenue.

Process improvements have also been used within the US Army to save billions of dollars. This includes back office costs by $9.5M and a 74% reduction in costs within maintenance processes for Chinook helicopters.

This diagram below sets out the key components to achieve this, and a structure to embed them into your organisation.

01 Set accountability

To drive business change – accountability needs to be clear. This can be set via heads of functions, with clear targets defined and set efficiencies to be made over the year. Responsibility for performance and improvements should then sit at a team level. Teams should be provided with ongoing support and clearly defined escalation routes to the leadership team.

Clear leadership and support are vital for building the engagement and momentum necessary for success. Leaders should champion improvement efforts and focus on putting in place the right (and limited) metrics to evaluate performance. These should be visible and reviewed on an (at least) quarterly basis by the leadership team.

02 Provide a methodology

Providing clear tools and guidance for process improvement will help people know what to look for when improving the way things are done. Providing simple frameworks will further help those in your organisation suggest and make improvements. Once people understand, you’ll be amazed at the ideas they can generate, with even the simplest changes leading to significant savings.

02a (Re)assess

The first step to improving an area of your organisation is to understand current performance and how things are done. Two things that are critical to this are:

1. Producing an up to date process map
2. Understanding current key performance indicators for the process.

Process mapping is simply the creation of a visual flowchart of how things are done. Business Process Model and Notation 2.0 (BPMN 2.0) is the most common business language used, but you can use whatever works best for your business. 

Due to working from home, the opportunity for process improvement has never been higher. The plethora of virtual tools provides a range of benefits to process mapping initiatives. People can contribute online at their convenience, allowing processes to be mapped and validated with little to no disruption to the working day. 

Through mapping processes virtually – live data sources can also be linked to the process map. This helps provide richer insight into current process performance.

Process Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) should cover a blend of efficiency, error rate, customer feedback, and other metrics most relevant to your process. The key is to understand how current performance compares to where you’d like it to be.

02b Identify problems

As above, problems can also be highlighted whilst people work at home. When identifying problems virtually, there can be a wider range of individuals engaged to help over a longer period of time in comparison to a single workshop with limited attendees. This provides a wider perspective on what problems are present. 

For those who may need a simple guide, something like the following cheat sheet can highlight where some of the issues may be in any process. 

Most processes can be improved in some way through quick fixes. However, more complex issues are worth addressing through a structured Six Sigma framework.

02c – Fix problems

Fixing problems can be much easier once you’ve identified the root cause. Using tools like “Five Whys” and a “fishbone diagram” can help highlight what the root causes are.

Root cause analysis

Once the root cause has become obvious to the team, it’s time to start generating ideas to fix the problems. By engaging more people remotely, a wider selection of ideas to fix root causes can also be sourced. Lots of problems can be fixed through simple changes such as:

  • improving training
  • improving communication between departments
  • adding checklists for key process steps
  • making errors more visible

However, there are always issues that can only be fixed through investment, i.e. in new technology. To approve new investments, a business case may be required. This is easier following the production of the process map and analysis of the process KPIs to show the return on investment. (If the business case process is particularly painful – it may be worth making improvements to this process too!)

Process improvement effort should not be a one-off event. Instead, there should be a constant reassessment of performance. This includes reviewing the KPIs for the team and ensuring improvements are fully embedded. By regularly and continuously going through a cycle of reassess, identify and fix, your teams will have the structure to continuously improve the processes they work with.

03 Highlight tools

The growth in online tools over the last six months, has been revolutionary. Organisations have been launched into digital transformation, with many organisations now using a suite of online collaboration tools. 

These tools can support with process mapping and analysis. Some of these include; MS Visio, Mural, Bizagi and even a combination of MS PowerPoint and MS Teams for simple processes. 

The key is to ensure that all members of the team can access the same document at the same time. This allows people to make changes, update process maps and suggest improvements in real time.

04 Empower people

Process mapping often sits outside of the core responsibility of team members. However, to ensure your process mapping efforts are as successful as possible, process maps should always be created with the input of the people who actually do the process.

Across all levels, people should feel and be empowered to engage in making their areas better. This can be further enhanced by positive reinforcement through recognition, and companywide challenges. One example is to challenge departments to cut down the processing time of key processes by 20%. Challenges can spark new innovative ideas from your workforce that will ultimately result in positive changes to the bottom line. 

It’s important to remember that not every improvement your team suggests or tries will have profound benefits. However, it's important to provide an environment where individuals feel comfortable to test and learn. This will allow your teams to become both more confident and capable in driving value across your business.

An Agile mindset is valuable here. When leadership encourage reflection (e.g. through retrospectives), employee skills and learning are accelerated. 

The people within your organisation are your biggest asset. Equip them with the right tools and incentives and you can rely on them to drive business performance. If you have any questions relating to the above on how this could work for your business, please contact


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