Process Cycle Time Reduction
A back-to-basics look at removing bottlenecks
by Bjørn Andersen
Editor's note: Business Process Improvement Toolbox, written by Bjørn Andersen and published by ASQ Quality Press (item H1010), offers more than 40 quality tool applications. The following is one idea to help create process-improvement systems.
Critical business processes are subject to the rule of thumb that time is money. Such processes are usually carried out through resources that often result as bottlenecks. Unfortunately, the products derived from these processes are usually the ones that matter most to customers; therefore, the products need to be delivered as fast as possible.
Common methods to reduce cycle time
There are several efforts suitable for reducing cycle times. Streamlining multiple efforts, however, can yield a much more efficient process resulting in cost and time savings and customer satisfaction. When reducing process cycle time, consider a combination of the following ideas.
Perform activities in parallel. Most of the steps in a business process are often performed in sequence. A serial approach results in the cycle time for the entire process being the sum of the individual steps, not to mention transport and waiting time between steps. When using a parallel approach, the cycle time can be reduced by as much as 80% and produces a better result.
A classic example is product development, where the current trend is toward concurrent engineering. Instead of forming a concept, making drawings, creating a bill of materials, and mapping processes, all activities take place in parallel by integrated teams. In doing so, the development time is reduced dramatically, and the needs of all those involved are addressed during the development process.
Change the sequence of activities. Documents and products are often transported back and forth between machines, departments, buildings, and so forth. For instance, a document might be transferred between two offices a number of times for inspection and signing. If the sequence of some of these activities can be altered, it may be possible to perform much of the document's processing when it comes to a building the first time.
Reduce interruptions. Any issue that causes long delays and increases the cycle time for a critical business process is an interruption. The production of an important order can, for example, be stopped by an order from a far less valuable customer request--one that must be rushed because it has been delayed. Similarly, anyone working amidst a critical business process can be interrupted by a phone call that could have been handled by someone else. The main principle is that everything should be done to allow uninterrupted operation of the critical business processes and let others handle interruptions.
Improve timing. Many processes are performed with relatively large time intervals between each activity. For example, a purchasing order may only be issued every other day. Individuals using such reports should be aware of deadlines to avoid missing them, as improved timing in these processes can save many days of cycle time.
A case study in streamlining
Consider an electronics manufacturer receiving customer complaints about long order processing times--a cycle time of 29 days. An assessment of the order processing system revealed 12 instances where managers had to approve employees' work.
It was determined that the first 10 approval instances did not yield detailed reviews because managers felt the activity was an interruption when there were other activities that needed to be addressed. Those initiating the orders, therefore, were given authority to approve their own work. This saved an average of seven to eight days in the order processing activity.
Many subsystems had interfered with the process--each performing the same or similar tasks. The logical step was to perform redundancy elimination, and a detailed flowchart of the process was created. At closer inspection, 16 steps proved very similar to one another. By changing the sequence of activities and creating one companywide order document, 13 of these steps were removed.
Over a period of four months, the order system was totally redesigned to allow information to be entered once and become available to the entire organization. Due to this adjustment, activities could be handled in a parallel manner. After a value-added analysis, the manufacturer was able to reduce cycle time from 29 days to 9 days, save cost and employee time per standard order, and increase customer satisfaction.
BJØRN ANDERSEN is associate professor in the production department at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. He received a doctorate in production and quality engineering from the Norwegian Institute of Technology also in Trondheim. Andersen is an ASQ member.