"Uncork Your Operational Bottlenecks . . . Boost Your Bottom Line!"

Chapter P – Process Improvement

2. What does it mean to improve a process?

Change is the only constant.
– Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

Improving a process is to make it better than it is or was. It means not just fighting fires created by doing what you do, but preventing them before they ignite. Process improvement means changing the mindset within the company, from the common practice of blaming someone or something for problems or failures to proactively making the needed changes to improve. It is a different way of thinking and acting. Actual process improvement involves following a specific process to achieve change, which we will delineate later in this chapter.

When you actively participate in real process improvement, you look for the causes of the problems or wastes in a process and use that information to reduce the variation (which in itself creates waste), remove non value-added activities and have the planned result of improving customer satisfaction.

The most common, and best, approach today is to Lean Out the process, or change it to eliminate the waste permanently. In our experience, we have found that in virtually all process (and there are hundreds in the typical company), waste exists. And this waste costs the company money. By improving a process, you can reduce the unnecessary waste, while still accomplishing the intended goal(s) of the process. Less waste equals less cost. Less cost equals higher profits. It’s simple mathematics.

4. How do you improve a process?

You start with how your process is today, or the as-is state. This demonstrates exactly how the process is performed currently. Document this in two ways. First, you simply write down all the steps in the process from beginning to end. This can be either in a narrative form, phrases, or using some dedicated tool or a process form. This is usually more challenging than it sounds. Why? Because most people do not realize the number of individual steps involved in even the simplest of tasks. You really have to take some time to think about what actually starts the process and how it actually ends. Then you have to add step(s) in-between the two.

Second, you draw a flow chart of this process. Flow charts use standard symbols to indicate the beginning of a process, process steps, decision points, action items, etc. along the path. Flow chart software can be found in the Microsoft Office suite, as well as several specialized software products.

Once the process is documented in the as-is state, you determine what changes need to be made to optimize the process, and then draw the future- or ideal-state using the same tools you used when developing the as-is state.

Comparing these two documents, you can then determine the steps needed to transform the company from the as-is to the future-state. Then you document an action plan showing how the company is going to get from one state to the other. Once this action plan is documented, develop a training program to teach everyone involved in the process exactly how it is to be performed from this point forward.

Once everyone who uses the process is trained to perform the process the new way, you should conduct a periodic audit of the process, to determine what adjustments need to be made to continue the improvement. Additionally, it must be regularly measured against a standard (either internal or external) to assure that progress is being made through reduced waste.

7. When is the best time to start to improve a process?

Start today.  Begin by choosing those processes that are either obviously “broken”, or have the biggest impact on your operations. The sooner you start, the sooner your efforts will begin to reflect positively on the bottom line.

Easier said than done, you may say. Yes, it always is. And you feel you don’t have time to take on one more task that doesn’t immediately hit the bottom line? Well, take heart; this is an example of the difference between an expense and an investment. An expense, as you may know, is money spent with no expectation of a return (e.g. rent for facilities). However, an investment is money spent with an expectation of a return (e.g. a mortgage payment).

We know that as processes are improved waste is reduced (and eventually eliminated) from them. When waste is reduced so is the related expense. So it logically follows that as you improve processes you drive down the cost of them and therefore, improve the bottom line. The increase in the bottom line is the return on investment or ROI.

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