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Continuous process improvement ensures that your processes are capable of meeting or exceeding internal or external customer requirements and business performance objectives. Continuous process improvement consists of the rigorous application of the following activities:

  • Identifying improvement opportunities
  • Ranking improvement opportunities
  • Organizing improvement teams to implement the improvements
  • Providing resources and direction to the improvement teams
  • Monitoring improvement activities
  • Sustaining the gains

Identifying Improvement Opportunities

As you manage your processes you will invariably discover new areas in your processes that can be improved. Identifying these areas is essential to continuous improvement. They are usually related to the process in terms of effectiveness, efficiency, or adaptability.

  • Process effectiveness measures how well your process meets or exceeds customer expectations
  • Process efficiency evaluates resource utilization and operating efficiency, such as cost and time needed to complete an activity
  • Process adaptability is the degree to which your process can accommodate evolving customer and business needs

You can use multiple sources to identify process improvement opportunities. Some available sources include:

  • Process flow analysis: By mapping or flowcharting a process, you can often find deficiencies such as gaps, disconnects, workarounds, and rework loops. These deficiencies are prime candidates for improvement, but before implementing any solutions consider the entire process flow so that changes made in one area do not cause problems in another.
  • Employee feedback: People working in a process are usually the most knowledgeable about what is wrong, what the causes are, and how to fix them. Institute a blameless, open environment in which employees are encouraged to make suggestions for improvement.
  • Customer needs analysis: When defining your customer's needs, it is not unusual that you are providing customers with some things they do not want (non-value-added) and not providing other things they do need (value-added).

Process measurement: Measure the performance of your processes and compare it with your customers' requirements. The improvement opportunities become evident when there is a significant gap between your customers' needs and the products or services your process is providing.

  • Customer feedback: Ask your customers to evaluate your products and services and make suggestions for improvement. Sometimes the voice of the customer can lead to major process improvement opportunities.

Ranking Improvement Opportunities

Ranking improvement opportunities allow you to focus on those solutions that will best serve process objectives, have the most impact on customer satisfaction, and increase process efficiency.

Establish ranking criteria: Criteria for ranking improvement opportunities include:

  • Feasibility
  • Cost savings
  • Impact on customers
  • Impact on the business
  • Resources required
  • Need and the potential for improvement
  • Cultural resistance

Determine your customers' priorities: Ask your customers to rank order the improvement opportunities you have identified. This can provide insight into how much your actions will affect customer satisfaction.

Go after the low hanging fruit: There are often areas you can improve quickly and easily. A simple correction in policy, methods, or procedures; or an added service in response to a customer need can have very positive effects. However, before implementing any easy fixes, make sure they will not use too much of your process improvement team's resources, and will not cause unwanted effects downstream in the process.

Sometimes quick fixes are often temporary countermeasures and should be evaluated for sustainment or elimination when the major/long-term solution is implemented.

Organizing Process Improvement Teams to Implement Improvement

Management can exercise several options in implementing solutions:

  • Develop and implement solutions themselves. This applies when a solution must be implemented quickly and cannot wait on the slowness of the team approach.
  • Identify improvement opportunities or problem areas and organize process improvement teams. to conduct root cause analysis, develop recommendations, and implement solutions
  • Develop solutions and organize improvement teams to implement them.

By far the best approach is forming a team to address the problem, develop solutions, and implementing the solutions because it engenders a spirit of participation and employee involvement.

Select willing team members: Improvement team members are preferably volunteers who are willing, interested, and dedicated to participation in the team. Usually employees required or forced to join the team tend to have a negative impact on the team.

Choose knowledgeable team members: Team members should have extensive knowledge of the process and be actively working in it, so they can bring insight to problems and offer solutions to eliminate them.

Include a facilitator: At least one member of the team should serve as the facilitator. This person is knowledgeable in the teaming process and the improvement tools available to the team when solving essential problems identified by the team.

Use the teams to implement improvements: Process improvement is an opportunity to involve employees in helping to improve your processes. Empower the team to make the required improvements.

Providing Resources and Direction to Process Improvement Teams (PITs)

To carry out their assignment, your PITs require management support. Including training in the use of quality tools and techniques. Management interfaces with the team to ensure adequate resources are deployed to implement solutions resulting from the team's improvement recommendations.

Monitoring Improvement Activities

Management/process owner maintains regular contact with the PIT and stay abreast of other organization improvement efforts by:

Regular communication with PITs: Establish ongoing two-way communications with the PITs, using a mix of approaches such as informal status meetings, formal presentations, and sunset reports.

Discussing solutions with the team before implementation: The most effective way of implementing planned solutions is to have the full support of management. They can offer suggestions, help to breakdown organizational resistance, and evaluate the effect of proposed changes.

Sustaining the Gains

Process improvements are not fleeting; they are meant to last. The new level of process performance should be maintained long after the team has implemented its improvements, and should withstand organizational changes in staffing. However, changes in business strategy and customer requirements usually call for a reexamination of your processes. Many process improvements can be replicated across your organization resulting in considerable savings. Sustaining the gains also means seeking new improvement opportunities to further enhance current process performance.

Publicize the improvements: An important part of maintaining the improvements is to recognize and publicize the work of the team.

Share measurement data: Use various media to display process performance results

Maintain open communications: Frequently communicate progress with customers, suppliers, and the employees working the process

There are many approaches for applying process improvement techniques to your business. The methodology I have outlined in this article is one I most commonly use when working with client teams to make their processes more efficient, less costly, capable of meeting their customers' requirements, and above all producing a consistent value-added output.

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Willie L. Carter is the president of Quantum Associates, Inc. He helps management unlock the full promise, energy and speed of their processes. Carter is a Certified Lean Sensei, a Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence, an experienced facilitator, coach, and author of the book, "Process Improvement for Administrative Departments: The Key to Achieving Internal Customer Satisfaction." His company Quantum Associates, Inc helps executives improve their processes to unleash organizational velocity creating a faster enterprise.

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