Process Improvement

by Rus Slater

Planning the improvement

When you have finished all the mapping and analysis, you can actually start planning the improvement to the process.

Before you plunge too deeply into this, it is wise to understand, and ensure everyone else does too, what you are hoping to achieve:

  • Are you expressly looking for measurable improvements in specific areas? For example, are you aiming to speed up cycle time, reduce headcount, lower costs or cut your carbon footprint? If so, by how much?
  • Are you simply checking to make sure that your process is as efficient as it can be?
  • Are you hoping to find ways to help your staff achieve more in the same period of time?
  • Are you actually just adding ‘improvement’ on to the mapping that you are doing in order to generate the documentation needed for a quality system?
  • Are you looking to improve capability in order to take on new work and increase profitability/stability (rather than be able to reduce headcount)?

Get the people who actually ‘do’ the process to map it and improve it. Keep the same team for both jobs and never use consultants to improve the process!

It is valuable to ensure that the same people who did all the work to date are just as heavily involved in the improvement, because they know the processes and they have done all the analysis. They are therefore better able to see the reasons for keeping certain events in the process. Also, they are the people who will make the new process work, so you want them to have both ownership and responsibility for the new processes actually functioning or you may immediately go into a situation where you have a separate ‘as is’ and ‘should be’!

Case study

In 2008 Alaska Airlines undertook a process improvement exercise on their check-in kiosks. They

  • Brought together a team of check-in staff
  • Agreed a prioritised list of improvements
  • Gave them the time and resources for brainstorming, mapping and experimentation
  • Encouraged other employees in the process to share their thoughts
  • Finally, tested their recommended improvements, allowed them to make adjustments and then roll out their solution.

The results speak for themselves: During a typical two-hour period, an Alaska agent checked-in 46 customers; in the same time, the agent at another airline’s nearby check-in counter – one with a traditional process – served just 22.

The new design not only improves customer service, cutting check-in time from 25+ minutes to an average of just eight; it also has the potential to save the company an estimated $8 million in annual overhead.

Never use consultants to improve the process as people often resent being told how to do their job by consultants who have never done it. Consequently they don’t take any ownership of the ‘improvement’. The consultants aren’t going to be around to pick up the pieces if their ‘improvements’ don’t work, consequently they don’t take ownership of the improvements either! 

Consultants seldom understand why things need to be done a certain way or understand the downstream impact of changes. So never use consultants to improve the process... you can use a consultant as a facilitator to help your own people with the improvement, but let them be the captains of the ship whilst the consultant simply keeps the boiler stoked!

Process users

Some people are good at following processes and get a bit lost without them – without knowing what happens next. They are good at testing processes. They are more procedural in their approach to doing things, and tend to keep using a process once they find one that works for them. They will seldom experiment to find new ways or improvements. They can be creatures of habit.


Process ‘improvers’

Some people are forever tweaking processes to see if things can be done differently. They often dislike being required to follow a process and gravitate towards things where they have options to choose from. They are good at designing new processes, but not so good at following or testing existing ones, as they will always want to do things a bit differently. They will get bored by being constrained within a process and seek to ‘spice it up’ or change it for the sake of change, not necessarily for the sake of improvement.

So your challenge as a manager is to get the two types of people to work together to produce a really good process that everyone can support!

Start with ‘as is’

It is best to start with your ‘as is’ process laid out graphically in front of the team, with all the ‘data’ from the analysis.

  • Look at the overall process and ask yourself the question, ‘Is it OK?’ It may be that the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘pretty much, with a few tweaks’. If the answer was a yes, then – depending on your overall objective – you may want to leave it alone (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it). Many managers have dug themselves into a hole by trying to change things for the sake of it
  • If the answer was ‘pretty much, with a few tweaks’, follow the same change process as if you were undertaking significant changes. A carelessly done small change can wreak havoc.
  • If there are major areas that need to be changed, you may want to start off with the question ‘Is it worth us changing the process or should we just outsource it? If you decide to outsource it, have a look at your Customer Service Agreement, remembering that you are now the customer!
  • If you are going to undertake improvements to the process, follow this change process.
  • Consider small and radical changes to events within the process and ways in which an activity can be improved slightly, such as improved timing, material or method. Also consider ways in which the activity can be removed altogether or reduced dramatically.