This month’s question
What are some of the systematic steps you’ve followed to improve processes in your organization? Are there certain steps or frameworks you follow each time when tackling a process improvement initiative?
While organizations have their own templates and lay out specific steps slightly differently, most that take a systematic approach to process improvement projects or initiatives generally follow the plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle.
Before beginning any process improvement initiative, the objective must be clearly defined and agreed to by the improvement team and management. Also make sure management buys in to the need for the improvement initiative and will fully support the team as it conducts its work. Improvement projects tend to fail without management’s support.1
A good first step in conducting any improvement project is to collect information to understand the current state. This information may include process maps, control charts, current process documentation or any other information available that allows the team to define the starting point of the project. Sometimes, the team can uncover valuable insight into the process through this work, such as areas where the process is not clearly defined or where handoffs occur.
Also be sure to understand the metrics or key performance indicators. Chances are the need for the improvement project was identified through a signal in a metric, so this is a good signal to pay attention to throughout the project to understand where the team is starting and to judge its progress. The team also should investigate other related metrics so performance can be evaluated throughout the entire value chain.
Next, the team should define the future state. Analyze the gap between the current process performance and the desired performance. Are there inefficiencies, incongruities or ambiguities keeping the process from performing as desired? After these gaps are identified, develop action plans for closing the gaps. Create a plan for completing the actions—including a description of each action, who is responsible for completing the action and a due date—and also create and implement a communication plan so management and other stakeholders are kept updated on the status of the project and its associated actions.
Now, it is time to execute the plans. As the team completes each improvement action, identify and implement effective controls that will ensure the actions stay in place after the formal project work is over. Execute the communication plan along with the action plan. Regular updates give management and stakeholders insight into the work involved in implementing the plan, and provide a way for the team to request management’s help regarding any resources required or obstacles that must be removed to facilitate the team’s work.
It is essential that the team follow up to evaluate the effect of the implemented actions on the process in the short term (within a couple weeks) and long term (after three to six months). Were the actions effective? Did they have the intended effect? Did implementing the changes have negative effects elsewhere in the value stream? If the improvement actions addressed the immediate gap the team was trying to close but broke a process somewhere else, the problem has just been moved to another location. Verifying immediate and continued effectiveness of the implemented actions allows the team to ensure that the actions and their associated controls are still working effectively and haven’t caused unintended problems elsewhere.2
Next, it’s time for further action based on the results. If the results are unfavorable, the team should go back through the PDCA cycle and update its knowledge of the current state based on its previous work and proceed from there. If the results show that the project was successful all around, then celebrate—and look ahead to the next project.
- Jamison V. Kovach and Dhanashri Ingle, “The More the Merrier,” Lean & Six Sigma Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, 2018, pp. 14-15.
- Stephanie Parker, “5 Whys,” Lean & Six Sigma Review, Vol. 18, No. 4, 2019, p. 32.
This response was written by Stephanie Parker, quality manager, Boon Edam, Lillington, NC.