ONE GOOD IDEA
Process Optimization for Service Organizations Isn’t Rocket Science
by John Scott
The following is intended for service industry people who are mostly clueless about quality improvement. (You manufacturing people can skip the page because you already get this, right?)
As a charter member of a group charged with implementing a quality management system (QMS) in a traditional service industry, I have driven myself to the edge many times trying to get service managers to understand process measurement and its relation to continuous improvement.
After years of meeting resistance on measurement, making little headway and not getting through to managers, I finally came up with a one-page flowchart that explains the basics. It ties suppliers, inputs, outputs and customers to measurement and continuous process improvement (Figure 1).
The beauty of this flowchart is the measurement requirements are easily defined. You have suppliers? Then you better set standards and measure what they send you. You have processes? Then you better set performance goals, and measure and manage them for improvement. You have outputs? You better check if they meet customer requirements. You have customers? You need to measure satisfaction to determine if they are getting what they want and need.
After all this measuring, the hard part nobody has time for (too busy putting those service fires out, you see) is what comes next: monitoring the data to improve the process and product, and keeping the company in business. You must analyze the data to see if it’s bad and not meeting standards, or good and meeting standards.
Figure 1 shows that if it’s bad, you should take corrective action. If it’s good, take preventive action and make it better. You never know, maybe you can avoid some of those raging fires and put the firefighters to better use.
There are many process improvement approaches that can help you figure out what to do. The continuous improvement methods include define, measure, analyze, improve and control, plan-do-study-act, Six Sigma and total quality management.
All of them contain one or more of the following steps:
Identify the problem or improvement opportunity: Assuming you did the measurement part on the flowchart, display and analyze the data using pie charts, histograms, Pareto charts, run charts or control charts. (Control charts in the service industry might be too close to rocket science—ignore them if you see the potential for intense pain.)
By the way, service people: If you don’t do measurement, you won’t be able to tell if you fixed a problem or improved a process.
Identify the root cause: Tools used are cause and effect diagrams, checksheets, interviews of people involved, process flowcharts, process maps (easier than flowcharts), histograms, scatter diagrams and the five whys method.
Identify data related to the problem and the root cause: This is what you will look at to see if your solution will actually work. (You’ll test the solution later.) Although this seems simple, in my industry it must be considered near to rocket science because it is rarely done. You might have data already (see Figure 1), or you have to collect new data.
Identify the potential solutions: There are many ways to do this, including tree diagrams, process decision charts, matrix diagrams, interrelationship diagrams and common sense.
Select the best solution: You must make a decision here. All the work you just did should give you a clue as to what the best solution is. Just list the possibilities, analyze them and go for it. There is no way of knowing for sure whether the solution is going to work. However, based on the work you just did, there is a great chance it will.
Implement the best solution: Put the change in place. Plan for it, test it—if you can—and make the change.
Make sure it worked: It is easy to implement it and forget it, so you have to make sure it worked. Is the root cause of the problem gone? Will the fire need fighting again? Verify the result.
Update your QMS and start over: If you don’t have a QMS, look into it.
There you have it—a one-page answer to everything that ails the service industry. (Thanks to all the manufacturing folks who blazed these trails for us to follow.)
JOHN SCOTT is the director of contract and quality management for Companion Data Services in Columbia, SC. He earned his bachelor’s degree in management science from the University of South Carolina-Columbia. He is an ASQ member and a certified quality manager.