Do you plan Process Improvements or do they evolve?

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ― Albert Einstein

Is process improvement an art or a science?

Is it something that evolves over time or do you actively plan your process improvement activities?

It would seem that a number of organisations evolve their process improvement activities by simply reacting to prevailing circumstances. Others target, plan and formulate their process improvement activities.

Some Service Managers “jump in” with a certain process improvement methodology as the basis and driver to deliver process improvements. Part of their Continual Process Improvement driver.

There are numerous process improvement methodologies, we can examine, including:

Lean tools: Used to eliminate wasteful process steps or activities that do not add any value.

  • 5 S’s: is a workplace organisation method that uses “Sort”, “Set In order”, “Shine”, “Standardise” and “Sustain”. The list describes how to organise a work-space for efficiency and effectiveness by identifying and storing the items used, maintaining the area and items, and sustaining the new order.
  • Value Stream Mapping: Value stream map is a graphical representation of the flow of materials and information that are needed to bring your product or service to your customer.
  • Kaizen (PDCA Cycle): Is a technique that calls for the constant improvement of every function of your business. It is based on the “P” Plan, “D” Do, “C” Check “A” Act method. 

Six Sigma Tools: It’s about collecting data on processes to understand what’s happening. This data is then analysed and interpreted to find effective ways to improve the process, reduce cycle time or reduce defects

  • DMAIC: Define, Measure, Analyse, Improve and Control refers to a data-driven improvement cycle used for improving, optimising and stabilising business processes and designs.
  • Cause and Effect Analysis: It’s also known as fish-bone diagram or Ishikawa diagram.  It is a technique that can be used to visually display the causes of a certain issue or effect.
  • Process Maps & Process Flowcharts: Process maps graphically represent each step of a process. And they are an essential part of process documentation.

Other Tools

  • BPMN: Business Process Modelling Notation map is the standardised way to create visual models of your business processes.
  • Rummler-Brache method: Managing the organisation as an adaptive system – Facilitating Complex Organisation Change Management & Process Re-Engineering

I am not going to extol the virtues of one over another. I am not a purist in the sense that I leverage only one. After all, why only use a hammer when you have other tools in your tool box. 

Rather, I leverage elements from multiple methodologies to suite the potential issue that needs review. What I would say, after twenty plus years of working on process and customer experience improvement programmes and initiatives, is that there are a number of steps that you need to understand even before starting the improvement programme of change.

STEP 1: Discovery Stage

A colleague / customer has brought to your attention that there is a problem in the “process, production, service, delivery or customer experience”. What exactly are they describing as the issue? It this a one off? Is it an ongoing situation? Is it related to only one service or customer?

In simple terms, is there really a problem that requires fixing?

Worked Example:

  • A customer group had over 800 bases across the UK. With more than 19,000 devices (of 21 different model types); and an excess of 447,000 direct customer interactions per annum. 
  • Perceived Problem: The customer was logging 20% more incidents than had been predicted at the start of service two years ago.
  • Actual Problem: Through detailed analysis of the installed base of products, and marrying the incident volume to the product types, highlighted it was certain types of products (6 out of 21) that were causing issues, not everything.

STEP 2: Prioritisation Stage

Data is one thing, how you can extract from data, the knowledge and insight to target process improvements, is something else. Data on it’s own does not give you context. It can, though, give you pointers such as:

  • Is it a certain type of customer experience that is causing the issues to be highlighted? 
  • Is it a particular service or product? 
  • Is it related to a particular geography or location?

In effect, you are looking for data points that are out of the norm. Or conversely, if there is a mass of data in one area, that can point to a significant issue area. Good idea to check with others and discuss to ensure the target is correct.

Worked Example:

  • Having honed the issue down to a smaller group of products – 6 in total – examine the data to see if there was a common set of causes of the issues
  • The underlying data pointed to how the products were being used by the customers colleagues
  • Checking the data against the 800 bases across the UK, this highlighted bases where the incidents were lower than average, as well as those that were higher.
  • This focused and prioritised, customer visits to understand working practices and confirm the discovery phase analysis

STEP 3: Change and Control Stage

This is the stage where you can use your favourite process improvement methodology to commence the change, be it related to customer experience or process improvement. However, whatever method you use, measure once, measure twice before you make the change. Also, only make one change at a time, not wholescale change. Otherwise, how will you know which change actually affected the outcomes that you wanted. 

Oh, and don’t forget that all change involves the people that actually work through the process. Don’t forget to involve them so that they feel engaged and part of the change. Communication and inclusion is in my experience key to success.

Worked Example:

  • 18 changes made on the customer’s Service Desk to improve the end-user experience
  • 6 service changes made to the product support
  • 20 customer experience recommendations to be implemented across 800 bases
  • And, no, these were not all done at the same time!
  • Over a 6 month period, with the changes and recommendations followed, the incident volume dropped to below predicted levels; customer satisfaction increased dramatically and end-user experience also improved

I hope this has sparked thoughts, reaction and helped you. You will know that nothing stands still and things need to move forward to control costs and deliver the right levels of service. As always, please feel free to comment, make suggestions, challenge and feedback on this article.

I leave you with the following quote which really made me smile.  

“Everything must be made as simple as possible. But not simpler.” 

Albert Einstein

Photo by Hello I’m Nik 🇬🇧 on Unsplash

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