Greetings from Singapore! When the jet lag kicks in, sometimes it is good to focus the mind on a topic. I thought I would shed light on few frequently asked questions related to process improvement since I am here on a business trip helping drive improvement in one of the key business products the organisation has
In this post I will aim to answer the following questions:
- What is process improvement?
- Is process improvement a project?
- Why is process improvement important?
- How can I start my journey on process improvement?
What is process improvement?
To understand what process improvement is, it is essential to know what a process approach to a business is. ISO defines a process approach as:
The process approach involves the systematic definition and management of processes, and their interactions, so as to achieve the intended results in accordance with the quality policy and strategic direction of the organisation.ISO9001:2015
So if you are comfortable with this definition of a business approach, then process improvement is simply understanding the effectiveness of your processes to determine where efficiencies can be introduced. Here are few questions you can ask to understand if a process needs improving:
- Is the process delivering what it is intended to do?
- Are these intended purposes clearly defined?
- Can they be demonstrated in quantitative or qualitative manner?
- Are there any idle periods where there is no movement within the process?
- Are these idle periods impacting the end result?
If you answer one of the above questions with some ambiguity, or if you are unable to answer any of them, then you know a process improvement initiative should be adopted.
Is process improvement a project?
If you speak to Quality Professionals, they will always tell you how process improvement is a continuous approach. We refer to it as continuous improvement. If you look at the definition of a project according to Project Management Institute:
A Project is a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The temporary nature of the project indicates a beginning and an end to the project work or a phase of the project work. Projects can stand alone or be part of a programme or portfolioPMBOK Guide Seventh Edition (PMI, 2021)
From the surface of these two concepts you might conclude that process improvement is not a project. My argument hopefully convinces you otherwise.
Yes, Process Improvement as an approach has to be continuous, but you can handle each part of it in a small temporary project. Let us say for instance you are looking to improve the process for a printing company and how they produce business card. Business Cards take a very long period to print and require lots of resources (both human and machines) to proceed. The process of printing has been set up in 2005 for company X and no one looked at it since. You might decide to approach this in the following manner:
- Map out the as-is process
- identify the gaps or the areas that require updating
- Engage with stakeholders in the business to get their inputs
- Design the proposed process of printing
- Implement the new process
- Monitor its performance
You can look at the above approach as a project in itself. You can determine that for you to bring the business printing methods to the current technologies, you may need 3 months. This becomes your temporary endeavour. You might, for the sake of argument, determine that printing business cards is an extremely complex process and you may need 6 months to map out the as-is process. You can then decide that understanding the as-is process is a project in itself and it will take you 6 months.
When working on process improvements, it is important to understand your stakeholders’ requirements as well as the business needs to proceed. In many instances, you will end up with a list of nice to have for the proposed process. If the decision is not to address this nice to have list in the current iteration of the process, then treat them as a new project and handle them under another temporary endeavour. I highly recommend this approach. Why? Because this helps you mark a closure point at several intervals and celebrate the successes of the improvements you and the team achieved. Having a constant ongoing work, especially when it includes change, can be very exhausting to everyone involved. So keep it short, simple, with an end point in view so efforts can be celebrated.
Why is Process Improvement Important?
You can read a lot of articles and posts about the importance of process improvement to the business. And depending on the company culture, some might brand this activity as a cost cutting exercise. But to me the main reason why any business or team would want to improve a process is because they want to feel good about what they do and remove any frustrations. We spend a lot of time of our lives at work with colleagues. We do not want the environment to be unpleasant or frustrating. When a process is improved, you are basically removing frustrations, steps that are not necessary, steps that have not been questioned for a long time and the team has been operating on auto-pilot, and most importantly you are highlighting successes and building upon them. This will allow the team to recognise that what they do is important and they will have the basis to grow even more.
How can I start my journey on Process Improvement?
It does not need to be complicated. My suggestion is first to assess whether you have certain skills. If you do not posses all of them, then partnering up with someone from your team who does before you start the journey is recommended.
I am talking about skills such as attention to detail, curiosity, empathy, problem solving, analytical skills and excellent communicational skills driven from active listening. These are essential skills to have to start your journey. They are referred to as Power Skills; behaviours that enable people to succeed’; by Project Management Institute. You can read more about them here.
To proceed with the improvement mechanisms, roll your sleeves up and start understanding the details of what currently happens with the process. I refer to this stage as the discovery stage. Start understanding how a certain aspect of the business operates to identify the successful stories. You are discovering what works and what doesn’t. Or in some instances what works perfectly well and what comes with some frustrations to certain team members. If you are able to shadow someone as they are performing the tasks, then do so, and do it quietly. If you have observations, make sure you note them down to yourself, and verbalise those that are positive. The observations that you think can be improved, keep them for later once you have completed the discovery stage. Do not share them yet, because after all you are still in discovery mode. There are chances that your observations can be invalidated at a later stage when you have achieved an even better understanding end-to-end. Through this discovery stage, you are starting to build your process improvement ‘project’ or cycle. And PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) is the continuous improvement cycle often referred to by Quality Professionals. You can find out more about it in my previous post here.
Once the discovery stage is complete, you then start your review, perform some analysis, engage with stakeholders so you can plan your improvement steps.
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