Process Improvement

by Rus Slater

In a nutshell

1. Mapping processes

Process mapping uses standardised flow-charting symbols to produce a diagrammatic representation of a business process. It allows the process to be

  • Easily explained to people involved or not involved in the process
  • Broken down by activity, responsibility, ownership, dependency, concurrency and value
  • Assessed for bottlenecks and critical paths
  • Measured for time and resource usage.

It is important to distinguish the overall activity from the product/outcome and also to decide whether you want a micro-level process map or a macro-level one.


2. Symbols and conventions

There is a lot of software available (including shareware, freeware and add-ons to MS packages) which can make process mapping or flowcharting a breeze. Alternatively, you can use the good, old-fashioned ‘steam’ methods that enable you get straight into it without having to identify, assess, buy and learn new software applications.

It is not critical what symbols you choose to use, but it’s important to make sure that everyone understands which symbols you are using and what they mean.


3. From start to finish

Whether you are using software or paper, it pays to put some thought into how you use the symbols and to follow some basic guidelines.

  • It is critical to formally agree, and document, the point at which the mapped process starts. For example, in the scenario of making a cup of tea, is it at the point when the kettle boils or when the decision to have a cuppa is made?
  • An activity is any step in the process where something happens or is done which furthers the process.
  • A macro-level process map may have activities grouped together under one heading – for example, ‘produce documents’.
  • A micro-level process map will list the specific activities required to produce each of these documents in detail.
  • Every decision inserted into a process map must be set as a closed question with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. If the answer is ‘yes’, the process moves on to the next stage; if ‘no’, the map must show what the next stage should be in that case.
  • The arrows show the onward movement of the ‘product’ through the string of events that make up the whole process.
  • The end point, like the start point, needs to be formally agreed.


4. Before you start mapping

Before you actually get going, you need to make sure that everyone understands whether you are mapping ‘as is’ or ‘should be’:

  • ‘Should be’ is the official process, as laid out in the standard operating procedures, employee handbooks and so on
  • ‘As is’ is the process people actually use in practice.


5. Mapping your process

This method works well:

  • Get a team together, choosing people who carry out the process normally
  • Clarify the output and your aims
  • Stick a roll of paper on the wall
  • Mark the start point
  • Brainstorm activities and then decisions on sticky notes
  • Stick them on the roll and link them with string
  • Look for agreement, checking for concurrencies


6. Analysing your process

To get the best value from the analysis, you need to analyse from three perspectives:

  • The voice of the process
  • The voice of the people
  • The voice of the customer


7. Planning the improvement

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 and therefore will be 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.


8. Improving your process

You can use the following tools to work out what changes to make and to design your new, improved process:

  • The 5 S’s of housekeeping – sort (remove anything unnecessary), segregate (everything in the right place), shine (eliminate mess), strengthen (update the information) and standards (training)
  • Downstream impact analysis (using the Ishikawa fishbone diagram and including stakeholders in the review)
  • The work triangle – for efficient organisation of equipment.


9. Testing a new process

After you have analysed you existing process and planned out a better way of doing something, you are going to have to dip your toe in the water of reality and make sure that it works!

  • First, walk the process, getting the team to go through the process for real to check for any omission or errors.
  • Then, run a full-scale trial, informing all stakeholders and seeking feedback.