Process Improvement

It may be a single comment that simplifies a process, or it may take feedback and participation from the whole team to improve a process. Sometimes we all need to investigate new tools or methods, or hire consultants as mentors. But before you implement the next hot thing in your company, consider asking employees what they need to be more effective. Most companies have a long list of challenges that staff feel stuck with.

The Hamster Wheel

Face it. We all feel the pressure to produce, and sometimes it feels like a hamster wheel that we can’t get off. The old saying “work smarter, not just harder” has never been more needed, yet sadly less used. Unfortunately, for most employees that just means more responsibility, with the same amount of time. Too often this results in bouncing from one urgent project or task to the next one, with very little time to evaluate process effectiveness. It usually takes a major problem (complaints, delays, lost sales, etc.) for us to stop and look at our processes

The Swan

There’s a better way than just faster and harder. Just as a swan takes rhythmic strokes underwater, and appears to glide effortlessly to the next place, so an effective process looks almost effortless – no chaos, just one step after another in order – producing consistent results. In an effective Quality Management System, the routine use of internal audits and data analysis allows you to identify gaps in processes, or trends in deviations from anticipated outputs, before they result in a crisis. Consistent review of process effectiveness creates time in a busy schedule for regular process improvement.

It's all in the planning

The 2015 versions of ISO 9001 and ISO 14001 have added a concept that is critical to process improvement. Performance monitoring is now tied to Objectives which are a result of Risk Management. The sequence is: Know your risks, Set controls and goals to address them, and then Monitor to see if you’re meeting them.
Identifying overall corporate objectives, and supporting Key Process Indicators (or expected results from each process), then collecting the associated data as part of daily operations has three key benefits:
- Clear objectives by department or process help employees understand how their particular task contributes to overall company health. (Which ultimately connects to their compensation.)
- Management can identify which departments need additional resources in equipment, training, or staff.
- Deviations become clear immediately.

Process improvements vary by company but in every case they should be the result of
- Risk identification, assessment, evaluation and mitigation
- Clear objectives that are strategic and measurable
- Strong data collection and analysis
- Clear team communication on needs, objectives and options.

Data analysis whether predictive or prescriptive can help increase productivity, maximize operational efficiency and reduce production costs – while offering more insight into activities throughout the manufacturing supply chain. Process improvements happen by assessing the most critical areas of your operation frequently, using data generated as part of the operation’s activities, with the goal of making smarter decisions more quickly.

Within the LEAN world, improvement projects follow the Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control model. In operations, whether an Obeya or operations control room exists or not, process improvements are monitored when data is reviewed by management and team leads to identify issues early in the process. The daily Gemba walk around the facility then monitors those areas where change is needed or occurring to ensure timely implementation of solutions.

For those not yet involved in LEAN, improvement happens when management defines Key Process Indicators (KPIs), reviews data daily/weekly in operations meetings to ensure processes are achieving targets, and shares objectives, tasks, targets, and results with line employees during production meetings.

Regardless of the tools you use, improvement works best when it’s part of your culture

At minimum, encourage team participation, get everyone in root cause analysis, and reward contributors to identify opportunities to improve processes.

In our next pages we discuss the details of Risk-based thinking, Root cause analysis, and other core concepts.

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