When leaders consider implementing a structured business process improvement methodology, one of the challenges they often face is explaining to employees what types of opportunities to consider. Usually, there are some apparent needs that people attack immediately. Still, once those are addressed, it can be challenging to recognize the flaws in processes, especially ones you operate every day.
A practical approach for overcoming this issue is providing employees with categories of improvement potential to keep in mind. Sharing a few examples with your team — and asking lots of questions — can help spark ideas, get people thinking creatively and foster innovation.
Of course, recognizing the opportunities for improvement is only the first step. Next, your team will need to leverage various improvement techniques to implement positive change.
This post breaks down common improvement needs into several categories and then covers several practical tools for problem-solving.
Product defects and errors affect profitability, cause dissatisfied customers, and hurt employee morale. That's why quality problems are usually the go-to target for improvement efforts. Some problems are easy to spot, but others take time to understand and uncover. Our customers have implemented quality improvements by:
- Using control charts to understand variation and detect trends
- Introducing process automation or mistake proofing ("poka yoke"), where possible, to eliminate the opportunity for error
- Calculating the financial impact of defects and rework
- Tracking customer complaints and reasons for support calls
- Applying the "5-whys" problem-solving technique to find the root cause of quality issues
When you think about quality improvement, remember that it isn't just the final products or services delivered to customers that can have errors. Internal processes and information must be free from defects as well.
Keeping costs low is often considered to be the responsibility of the finance team and C-suite leaders, but chances are good that everyone in the organization can point to a way to reduce costs. Those closest to the work know what activities add to time and cost without any meaningful benefit. Common opportunities to reduce costs include:
- Limiting the purchase of perishable items except for immediate use
- Shifting from paper records or forms to electronic ones
- Frequently reviewing vendor contracts to ensure they meet current needs and conditions
- Reducing the inventory of products or raw materials
- Matching staffing to actual customer demand
Regardless of why the team undertakes an improvement project, most will have a positive impact on cost.
In the same way, everyone can contribute ideas about cost reduction; you don't have to be in sales or product development to have excellent ideas for increasing sales. Our customers have grown the top line by:
- Creating new bundles or products or services
- Addressing new markets or audiences
- Improving collections procedures
- Creative marketing to existing customers
- Making it easier to do business with the company
- Expanding partnerships to explore new channels
Our customers are often pleasantly surprised by the ideas that their teams come up with for increasing revenue when invited to do so.
Safety is a more significant challenge for some types of organizations than others, but every organization should pay attention to the safety of its workers and guests. This is one area where front-line workers can be extremely valuable; they see the risks firsthand. Process improvement examples that improve safety include:
- Employee awareness and training
- Workplace standardization and organization
- A well-documented and streamlined process for reporting hazards
- Automation that reduces safety or ergonomic risks
- A method for analyzing close calls or near misses
- Signage or other visual indicators of potential hazards
Every person in the organization has a role to play when it comes to customer satisfaction. Whether it is by creating products that maximize customer value, delivering support or services, insisting on excellent quality, or setting competitive prices, customer satisfaction is a team effort. Ideas for improving the customer experience include:
- Optimizing auto attendants to route customers to the help they need quickly
- Enhanced customer communications and content
- Implementing a structured approach to handling complains
- Skills-based contact center routing
- Transactional promoter score surveys
Your front-line employees know what your customers love and hate about working with your customers. Tap into this valuable resource to find areas for improvement.
Efficient companies practice operational excellence and get the most out of every resource. When organizations are inefficient, employees waste time and effort on tasks that don't add value, resources are wasted, and growth opportunities are missed. Ideas for improving productivity include:
- Eliminating duplicate work, like entering the same data into multiple systems
- Limiting meetings to those that are necessary and effective
- Streamlining approval processes
- Making sure that equipment and supplies are stored where they are needed
All of the above examples represent ideas for improving business processes, but it is also wise to consider how you can improve your approach to improvement. Effective communications and documentation will help you accelerate the pace of positive change. You might think about the following:
- Frequently communicating strategic goals and annual objectives
- Deploying improvement management software
- Using digital wallboards to visualize work-in-progress
- Using daily huddle meetings to structure the day's improvement activities
- Measuring employee engagement and activity
- Improving cross-functional information sharing and collaboration
Once your team is prolific at identifying opportunities for improvement, you'll want to ensure they know the most helpful techniques for implementing the ideas.
PDSA: PDSA is a structured cycle for improvement. The steps are:
Plan: Define the problem and identify possible solutions.
Do: Experiment by implementing one solution.
Study: Analyze the results of the experiment.
Act: If the experiment was successful, add it to the standard operation. If not, begin again.
The 5 Whys: The 5 whys is a problem-solving technique for finding the root cause of an issue. Simply stating a problem and then asking why five times or so will usually get to the bottom of the situation.
5S: 5S is a workplace organization technique for improving safety and efficiency. The steps are: sort, set in order, shine, standardize, and sustain.
Catchball: Catchball is a technique borrowed from the Lean business methodology. Someone, usually a leader or manager, starts the "ball" rolling by sharing an idea and asking for feedback. Then, others add their thoughts and pass the idea up and down the layers of the origination until it is refined and a consensus is achieved.
A3 Problem Solving: A3 problem solving is a structured technique for defining and solving problems. On a single sheet of paper, the team determines the current state, identifies the desired state, selects performance measurements, develops an implementation plan, and tracks the results.
Business process improvement is critical for success in today's competitive landscape, but it doesn't have to be overwhelming. Small process changes implemented by employees can have a significant impact on results. Armed with process improvement software, a few problem-solving techniques, and the full support of leadership, your team will exceed all expectations.
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