Process Improvement Isn’t so Hard:
It really isn’t difficult. We do it for a living and after a while it becomes second nature. I guess there are only really three or four rules anybody needs to know to improve their processes. Here is my take on what they are…
Rule 1: Find out what your customer wants
We dress this up a bit with acronyms (VOC, or CEM or maybe CSM) but at their heart processes produce things for customers. So finding out if a process is any good is as easy as finding out if the customers are happy with what it is producing.
Rule 2: Think about the whole process
The biggest opportunities for improvement are at the handoffs, where work is passed from one department to another. It is the no man’s land where responsibilities are unclear and issues get fudged.
All that talk of cross-functional processes and silo management highlights exactly the same issue. It is a struggle to improve a process unless you look at the whole thing.
Rule 3: Go and look at the shop floor
Most managers only have the faintest idea what is happening in their organisations. So going to have a look at what is actually going on, on the shop floor, is always enlightening.
Most of the doing is done on the shop floor; not behind meeting room doors. So the shop floor is the only place to really understand how processes work.
Rule 4: stop doing dumb things
The politically correct term for “dumb things” is “waste” but admit it… you have sat there with our head in our hands, groaning slightly, wondering why people are quite so stupid.
Process improvement is a subtractive art. If you stop doing all the dumb things then what you are left with will be significantly better.
This isn’t telling you anything you don’t know.
We dress it up in fancy terms but process improvement isn’t so difficult. We can argue about the number of types of waste, or when to use non-parametric analysis, but if you were to apply the Pareto principle to your craft and pull out the big things then I suspect your list wouldn’t be so different to mine.
But there is a problem…
Improving Processes is Hard Work
If the techniques are easy why is it that implementation is another thing all together?
Human nature isn’t too well aligned with process improvement. Many managers would rather have their teeth pulled than their processes improved. My 4 rules can quickly become 4 problems:
Problem 1: Defining the customer
For 95% of us our customer isn’t the one who hands over cash for our product, it is the one who hands over the cash for our time, or to put it another way, our boss. So success looks like keeping the boss happy and off our backs at all times.
It is a brave man who worries about the organisations customers before he worries about his boss.
Problem 2: We don’t care abut the whole process
Our customer, the boss, has asked us to manage our departments. He has handed down targets from on high, so is it surprising we focus on hitting those targets by optimising our bit of the organisation?
Clearly, or so the logic goes, if everybody optimises their bit, the whole organisation will work so much better.
So we all busily optimise our bit… and the people at work who give us most grief are the optimised departments up stream who hand us rubbish and the optimisers down stream who do nothing but complain about our own efforts. They are the enemy; hardly people we want to collaborate with to improve the whole process.
Problem 3: We hate the shop floor
The shop floor is loud, dirty, smelly and uncomfortable. Worse still it is a long way from our comfortable civilised boardrooms and head offices. If that isn’t enough, shop floor workers ask awkward questions.
Why would we want to put ourselves out and visit them? After all, all the action and intrigue happens in the corridors of power, not the operation.
Problem 4: The stupid things aren’t so stupid
Those of us who are busy pleasing our bosses, pulling one over on our colleagues and avoiding the shop floor, put those process “enhancements” in for very good reasons.
Why on earth would we want to change them now?
To Improve the Process you Have to Improve the People
The reason why improvement projects fail isn’t lack of tools or techniques; it is lack of understanding by the people in the organisation that their way of managing causes the issues in the first place.
So if you are frustrated by your process improvement efforts you only really have two options:
Option 1: Improve the people you work with
Educate them, show them, explain to them, engage them, do whatever you have to do to change your organisations outlook and culture.
Option 2: Improve the people you work with
As my Dad once said to me “If the bus isn’t going your way, get off the bus”.
Go and find an organisation where the people who run it realise that the only way they can really drive performance is to improve their processes.
And when you find it. Let me know, I’d love to do some real process improvement.