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Settle the score with process debt

Any company that works with software development is familiar with the concept of ‘technical debt.’ It’s the cost that comes from having to rework code, often because what was initially used was a quick fix or easy solution instead of a more comprehensive approach that might have taken longer.

Those short-term gains from quicker releases can easily translate to ongoing costs through increased maintenance or more expensive revisions, and that’s a debt that the organization has to carry until it can be resolved.

That’s not to say technical debt is solely the result of lazy development. In some cases, what was implemented was best practice at the time, and the technical debt is due to changing standards, technology, or expectations.

What was well-constructed code yesterday might look like a shortcut today, but even in those instances where the developers’ decisions at the time can’t be faulted, the ‘debt’ remains. The business will continue to accrue costs until those flawed code blocks can be refactored or rewritten entirely.

What many businesses don’t realize is that the same can be true of business processes.

Inefficient processes come at a cost

‘Process debt’ occurs when businesses operate with outdated or sub-optimal processes, and accrue implied costs relating to the work necessary to update those procedures. Unfortunately, the longer it takes for an organization to recognize and fix those process problems, the more ‘interest’ they pay on that debt through wasted time, errors, and breakdowns.

Just like its technical cousin, process debt is a legacy problem. Many processes come about through organic evolution. Practices become codified, recorded, and passed on without scrutiny and end up in the procedure manual. While they represent established ways of working, they aren’t necessarily optimized, and can in fact create compliance problems or waste that has never been examined.

Those outcomes have a cost. Delays through poor handovers or inefficient practices have a direct impact on the bottom line. Where quality is compromised by poor processes, customer satisfaction can similarly take a hit. Simply performing tasks manually can add hours or even days to a process execution cycle, effectively reducing the production capacity of a team or business unit and sending the cost of completion skyrocketing.

More than just measuring current costs, businesses serious about process debt need to recognize the future costs that such outdated or poorly-written procedures can accrue. Business process automation is a popular technological tool to jump-start process improvement, but if it is applied to sub-optimal processes, the result can be disastrous. At best, automation tools like robotic process automation (RPA) will accelerate ineffective processes, creating errors or logjams at pinch points.

At worst it will introduce new errors and breakdowns, potentially crashing the entire procedure until the underlying issues are addressed.

The solution is simple: settle the debt as soon as possible.

People are key to ongoing process improvement

Business processes should be living documents, not statutes set in stone and never reviewed again. As technology, markets, and the business environment evolve, so too should the processes that meet them. That means being agile, and engaging business teams in continuous improvement.

Some processes will need to be completely reworked. Whether the procedures are an ad-hoc collection of existing habits or an insufficient stop-gap approach that was never re-examined, the best solution is to pull the process apart and rebuild it from the ground up.

Engage the subject matter experts from teams who use the process regularly, and consider the flow and outcomes required for compliance and completion. Workshop possible solutions and devise an entirely new approach that will serve the business needs moving forward.

Other processes may just need revision. Again, the teams working with these procedures represent a wealth of expertise that should be invited into the conversation. Make it easy for teams to suggest improvements, and have process experts work alongside them to refine and implement changes that eliminate waste and delays.

Lay a solid foundation for your automation projects

It’s when this work is done that automation becomes a valuable tool to apply. With processes optimized, automation tools like RPA, digital forms, automated workflows, and document generation can add significant value.

Manual steps and data routing can be cut out, freeing staff to focus on value-adding work and removing human error. Handovers and data processing can become instantaneous, and those savings will benefit customers and staff alike.

Make a start today

Process debt, like technical debt, can be a significant problem for businesses. Unfortunately, like most problems, it won’t go away when it’s ignored. Instead, it continues to accrue costs and builds a legacy of risks throughout the organization.

The best solution is to meet it head-on, identifying problem processes and addressing them at the ground level. With the core process actions examined and reconciled to best practice, the debt can be cleared and the business can move forward with confidence.

Nintex offers a wealth of tools to address process debt in any enterprise. From process mapping with Nintex Promapp® to automated workflows and Nintex RPA, talk to us about optimizing your business processes and building a better future for your organization.



Interested in learning more about the Nintex Process Platform and what it can do for your organization? Click here to request a demo!



Thomas Kohlenbach

Thomas Kohlenbach is a senior product specialist at Nintex, the global standard for process management and automation. He has over 12 years’ experience implementing initiatives related to continuous improvement (Kaizen/Six Sigma), change management and system integration, across automotive and financial services industries. Thomas is a passionate business improvement advocate who has helped organizations around the world to decrease operational costs and drive cultural change.

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