When people talk about business process improvement, the conversation can get very far into the weeds quickly. There are several overarching approaches to business management like Six Sigma and Lean, and then there are more acronyms describing tools and techniques then you can shake a stick at. We’re not putting them down. DMAIC, PDSA, 5S, 5G, 5W1H, 4M1D, and all the rest are really effective ways to structure improvement and problem-solving. However, if you are new to the notion of process improvement, we don’t blame you if you find the jargon confusing. We’re probably guilty of getting too technical too quickly in this space from time to time, so today we’re going to keep it simple and ban the industry terms.
You don’t have to be a continuous improvement black belt to begin implementing positive change in your organization. Here are a few process improvement examples that are good starting points.
The human brain is designed to process visual information very quickly. That’s what makes it possible for us to do things like drive cars. What you can see around you, along with the information on your dashboard, lets you know what actions to take. If all you had to go by were text, you’d crash for sure. When data related to processes is put into “dashboards,” people understand the current state better and can take steps to respond to problems before they occur.
You might start by charting the results of a process over time. Are the results relatively consistent, or does there appear to be a lot of fluctuation? Are there triggers or conditions that cause spikes or dips in the chart? By simply looking at the data this way, you may uncover some valuable insights.
Another example of visual management is creating a board that shows work-in-progress as it flows across a process or processes. Are there parts of the process waiting for input from another? Are there backlogs that indicate that inputs are being pushed rather than pulled? Visualizing your WIP can help answer these questions.
When we ask people about reducing waste within an organization, the first thing that comes up are physical materials that get thrown away. That’s undoubtedly one thing to consider, but, waste takes many forms. There’s a ton you can read on the subject, but it essentially breaks down into a few buckets.
Unnecessary work – If your team has to move people or equipment around to get the job done, that’s waste. If you are adding features to a product that customers aren’t willing to pay for, that’s waste as well. Got someone entering the same data into four different systems? Reworking to correct for defects? You guessed it – waste.
Unnecessary stuff – One of the worst forms of waste we see is excess inventory. When materials are ordered before they are needed, or when product is created before the customer needs it, storage and maintenance costs can get out of hand. Someone has to manage the inventory, and sometimes it becomes unusable after time.
Lost potential – Perhaps the most often overlooked category of waste involves the loss of human potential. If you have employees who have great ideas for process improvement, but they don’t speak up, you are experiencing one of the saddest forms of waste. If you have team members with exceptional skills that aren’t being used or developed, your organization’s potential for growth is hindered.
Once you open your eyes to it, you will likely find waste baked into many processes, giving you an excellent place to start improving.
We mentioned that moving people or things around is an example of waste. Disorganized or poorly designed workspaces often cause this form of waste. In most cases, if you just ask, process operators can tell you exactly where the inefficiencies are. A few questions to ask:
- Are the items used most often or urgently readily at hand?
- Are the workplace and equipment cleaned and maintained regularly to maintain standards?
- Has the expected state of the workspace been documented and communicated?
- Is there a process for preserving workplace organization and safety and a coach to make sure it happens?
If any of these answers are no, you’ve got an excellent opportunity for improvement.
As you dig into continuous improvement more, you’ll learn about implementing a cycle for structured improvement. There are lots of ways to do that, but they all start with one thing, a standard way of performing a process or task. It makes sense, without a standard, you won’t know what to improve or whether changes resulted in better results or not.
Creating standards begins with documenting the current best practice for the process known today. You’ll want to get input from the people who do the work and be sure that the resulting documentation is available and up to date. Once people work according to the standard for a while, managed improvements can be implemented to experiment with ways to get better results.
We hope you’ll come back to this blog as you become familiar with some of the tools and techniques of continuous improvement (and their acronyms), but there’s no need to wait for every tool of the trade to make perfect sense before you get started. You can give some of these process improvement examples a try today.