Matt's Articles

Process Improvement

Process improvement is the top of the CI Framework. Performing process improvement continuously is what makes companies adaptable to change, agile to market disruptions, innovative beyond their competitors, and just great to work at. This is exactly why most organizations contact Chalmers St. Consulting. They are looking to improve and want to create a dynamic, engaging environment for their employees. After years of applying process improvement to many different environments, cultures, and industries I have learned that you cannot just jump in to process improvement. First, there must be clear ownership and accountability. Work activities must be defined and assigned. I explained this when I discussed Roles and Responsibilities. Next, there must be space to discuss our work together. We must be able to collaborate and change processes and standards as an aligned, coordinated, and collaborative team. I discussed this in Team Governance. Then, we need process controls. We need to be able to visually understand our processes, make them flow, and keep records of their output. I discussed this in Work Flow Management. When the output of processes is recorded we can create the time and space to reflect on performance. I discussed this in Performance Review. With the information that comes from Performance Review and our ability to collaborate on new and better ways of working, we can then create sustained process improvements. 


Change is difficult. We require the structures described to this point to successfully implement change. The reason why we so often hear, “because that is how we have always done it” is because it is comfortable. It works to some degree, or at least the problems it creates are known and expected. There are no surprises. To challenge “the way we have always done it” requires a great deal of evidence and confidence that we can get change to stick. I call it, “building the change muscle.” It is like exercising your body. If you do not do it regularly it is quite painful with varied results. If you do it regularly, it is less painful, and you know that there is value at the end of each exercise. The intrinsic value is what ensures you will follow through and stick with it. Process improvement provides the skills and methods to build the change muscle. There are many approaches such as DMAIC, PDCA, etc. They are all based on the scientific method. Choosing the right one is not as important as following through on the intent. I will describe our approach at Chalmers St. Consulting. 


Process improvement is one of our most important products at Chalmers St. Consulting. It is what we do in a nutshell. We have a standard approach. You may look at our approach and say, “well that is just DMAIC.” That is true, but not everyone is a process improvement nerd, which is why I like to keep process improvement understandable to everyone.  Here it is:

  1. Scope and Objective
  2. Current State Assessment
  3. Root Cause Analysis
  4. Kaizen!
  5. Implementation

Scope and Objective

Performance review done well will turn up all kinds of opportunities in your organization. Some will be simple and others complex. No matter the case, it is important to define what we are trying to solve, what is useful to solve, and the objective measure that eventually tells us it is solved. A simple scope and objective statement can do the trick. For more complex problems we create a formal charter. SMART goals are very useful here as well. Before we do any kind of improvement we need to make sure everyone is aligned on the problem and objective or else confusion ensues. As a result, nobody wants anything to change ever again. A simple written sentence or two around the scope and objective will do the trick.


Current State Assessment

This gets a bit more complex. For this I tap the skills and experience of Industrial Engineers. Frankly, no one is trained to think like they do and no one looks at a business as a system quite like an industrial engineer does. They have been trained as a scientist studying the natural world, to closely observe the interactions of humans and systems to complete a task. They bring a host of capabilities from process mapping, data collection, measurement, data visualization, mathematical modeling, and statistical methods so that we can begin to understand and even quantify interactions and relationships. Not every process improvement opportunity requires a great deal of complication, but all require us to understand the current condition of our process. Without proper respect to “how we have always done it” we lack the credibility to gain the support needed to convince people that there is a better way. 


Root Cause Analysis

Why, why, why, why, why… count them up. When we investigate the current state, it is easy to judge. At Motorola we often would “FedEx” critical parts from one building on campus to another building on the same campus. The parts actually had to leave the campus and go to a sort location out of state before coming back. It seemed silly, not to mention the expensive. It is easy to judge the people that made the decision to do this. It is easy to jump to a solution and tell them to stop and start using an on campus courier. From this very experience, I will tell you that if you take the easy route, which is skipping the investigation of the root cause, the solution will fail. We must understand the cause and effect in the system before we have a chance to make positive process changes (a.k.a. process improvement). Understanding a single reason why is not enough. We need to go deep. People are smart and they have good reasons for what they are doing. As outsiders, we jump to conclusions before really understanding. In consulting I call these people “insultants.” More than likely, the reason why “we have always done it this way” is that it fixed some other problem years ago and nobody remembers what that problem was. We ask why 5 times so that we can get to the bottom of that problem. We collect data and investigate cause and effect to produce a deeper understanding as to why the process works as it does. We work with subject matter experts (SMEs) to build the credibility needed to make informed suggestions on changes that eliminate the root causes so that we are clear about WHY that change will improve the process. 


Kaizen Events

I love Kaizen events! There are more reasons for this than I have time to write. I will keep it simple; they are cross functional and collaborative. In the day-to-day grind we have precious little time to discuss how to do our work better with our peers and our partners. An event facilitated by an experienced process improvement person takes all that we learn from the current state and root cause analysis and translates the information to insights that are further transformed into innovative solutions. It’s a thrill to see an idea morph through group discussion into a feasible solution. The energy that comes out of these events is palpable. There are many more intangibles that I could go on about, but the bottomline is that this is the turning point from process understanding to process solution. Kaizen Events are milestones that prevent us from becoming paralyzed by analysis. This is the another reason why they are an important component of the Chalmers St. process improvement approach. Setting the date for the Kaizen event creates a deadline and point of convergence that channels the team’s energy. There is alway more that we would like to know or investigate, but the action oriented nature of the Kaizen event forces us to take the best information that we have at the time and put it to work towards solutions. The event itself forces active participation, idea generation, and trial experiments. This is where process improvement becomes tangible and creates the path to bottomline impacting results.  


Implementation

Just do it! The more continuous our improvements, the stronger the change muscle, and the easier this gets. In implementation, there are many basic tools that we need such as timelines and status reports. The biggest challenge is persistence. Some of the solutions coming out of Kaizen are defined enough to implement. Others will require additional investigation, cost analysis, and trial. Some of the solutions will not work out the way we expected. This is not failure, just cycles of learning. Some solutions will require more cycles than others. Sure, we would all like to learn faster, but in the end persistence wins the day. 


One last note as we look through our process improvement approach, always remember that the improvement must be built back into the CI Framework. The improvement needs to update roles and responsibilities, it needs to include changes to the workflow controls, and it needs to record output for the purpose of review. This provides the process validation and control necessary to lock in the gains and create the groundwork for the next improvement. This must be a part of the solution discussion in the Kaizen. Without it, the CI Framework breaks down and we degrade our ability to do more process improvement; our change muscle atrophies. 


Process improvement sits atop the CI Framework model. Too often organizations think this is the starting point for continuous improvement when in reality it is the outcome of other structures. For organizations that do this well it is second nature and they struggle to explain it. You can always tell who they are because they are in new office buildings or manufacturing sites with shiny new equipment and smiling people. With the last few articles I hope that I have given my readers ideas on how they can become this type of organization. I can tell you from experience that it is a lot of fun. I have one last topic on this subject that I will cover in the next couple letters. It is the mindset and motivation we need for continuous improvement to work. It is that intangible thing that we so often refer to as culture. It creates the pylons of our CI foundation. They are hard to see and hard to change, but ever so crucial to ongoing success. 

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