A business process is a series of steps taken by key stakeholders to achieve a business goal.
Let's break that down:
- A series of steps: A business process is composed of a chain of actions, approvals, and tasks. This series of actions is documented in advance and adhered to, to prevent mistakes or slowdowns that impact the business goal. These steps go in order, where most follow after the previous step is completed (though some can happen in parallel).
- Taken by key stakeholders: Processes often span more than one person or team. They may involve tasks completed by individual contributors and decisions made by managers.
- To achieve a business goal: We do these processes to accomplish something for our department or business. These goals could be to make money by drafting and approving a sales contract, or to improve productivity by quickly onboarding a new employee. Often, the process needs to complete in a certain timeframe to avoid adverse impacts.
Business processes can encompass sub-processes as well, where each team's part of a process is itself a business process.
Examples of business processes
- Sales stages: most sales teams define a set of stages that a deal moves through, from prospect to closed customer. These stages include things like sending an initial email to a new lead, holding a demonstration call, writing a proposal, and negotiating a contract.
- Sales contract approval: within the sales stages, sales teams often have a sub-process to draft, approve, and negotiate a contract with a prospective customer. The sales person may draft it, the VP of Sales might approve it, and the legal team might review if the contract uses non-standard terms.
- Time-off requests: HR teams want to make sure employees can get the time off they need to stay healthy and productive, and want to process those requests quickly to keep people happy. So, there are often well-defined forms for requesting the time off and clear directions on who can approve the time off and for how long.
- Employee onboarding: HR teams often have detailed workflows for starting a new employee, like getting contracts signed, ordering their equipment from IT, scheduling getting-to-know-you meetings, and collecting important information from the new hire.
- Vendor approval: Given the financial outlays and the trust required to rely on a new vendor, a formalized process is inevitable. The layers of approval here need to be well-documented in case anything goes wrong.
- Purchase order management: This process involves approving, tracking, archiving, and paying purchase orders that are signed from approved vendors.
Customer Experience (CX) processes
- Customer onboarding: The hand-off between sales and the CX team is vital to get right. The CX team may need to go through welcome meetings, make a plan for services work, train the client, and support their first delivery of the product. All of that needs tight coordination, because delays in this first set of interactions can cause lasting relationship harm.
- Statement of work approval: Throughout engagement with a customer, work requests inevitably come up. Doing a careful analysis of requirements and planning then leads to a defined statement of work, which needs documented approval to make sure we aren't agreeing to expensive work we can't profitably supply.
The difference between a process and a project
A business process is often confused with a project. We've written a guide to the difference between a project and a process.
To sum it up: a project is for a one-time deliverable, where you want to track all the evolving tasks required to get it done. A process is a repeated workflow, where people need to do tasks but also to input data or give approvals.
A project is measured by whether we're late or over budget on the deadline. A process is measured by whether we're making good decisions, executing efficiently, and whether our average time through the process is fast enough.
How you can improve processes
The act of measuring and improving a process is called business process management. Once you're ready to redesign your process to better achieve your business goal, that is called business process re-engineering.
You can use software like Wrangle to map, automate, and track your business processes. That way, work doesn't get dropped and there's a central place to see where things are as they move through the workflow. You can try Wrangle for free.