Some processes do not repeat enough to quickly know the impact of the changes that you make to them. Think about sales processes, financial reporting processes, engineering processes, or new product launch processes. You may only get one chance per month to take a measurement. Given the iterative nature of implementing improvements, this can pose a real challenge to data collections and validation.
Before I discuss the topic, I want to qualify myself with something that may already be obvious. I do not have all the answers. I write about my experiences as a Black Belt because people have told me that it is useful and encourage me to keep writing. On many topics, such as this one, I can talk about how I fumbled around to solve a problem given the challenge. But that does not mean I have the answer. One of you may have a better approach on this topic. I would love to hear from you so that I can learn from your experience. I also write these newsletters for my own growth through sharing.
Okay. Enough about that, in my experience there are not many good ways to deal with processes that do not repeat often. That does not mean these processes should be ignored. Actually, I think these processes do not get enough attention. Here are three that I have dealt with and how I handled the situation:
I worked with a sales team once where it took around 180 days to get a price quote. Yes, that is correct, nearly half of the year! The pricing was dependent on a ton of contract language which required a lot of back and forth between legal departments. As you might imagine, this took a big chunk of the time and much of it was difficult to control. The good news was that they tracked key dates in a database, so we could collect historical data. At any given time there were quite a few price quotes in process and this gave us enough examples that we could explore the process and perform the root cause. In this type of situation, what is most critical is to recognize that each data point contains a wealth of information. We took our time and explored how dates were entered in the system. We investigated what specifically drove durations between stamps and gained knowledge about what makes each price quote different. In the end, we found opportunities to educate our sales force on the front end and also made templates for some of the legal work. Due to the long cycle time it took several months to verify our improvement. There was no real way around this, but we successfully cut the pricing quote time in half.
In another example, we were asked to investigate non-value added activities in a finance team. They were interested in the different activities that consumed a financial analyst’s day. Things like producing monthly reports, performing payroll activities, and so on. The tasks were varied and many repeated only once per week or once per month. Making matters more challenging, there was no data available on the tasks and their duration. To address this challenge we employed an interview technique that I had learned form another Black Belt. It relied heavily on interviewing people (which comes with its own drawbacks). The approach was methodical and helped us distinguish between quick duration tasks and long duration tasks, as well as daily, monthly, and weekly tasks. It allowed us to identify mundane activities that could be automated, redundant activities that could be eliminated, and tasks that could be grouped and scheduled to reduce the setup time that exists in knowledge work. Like the previous example, each piece of data we collected was extremely valuable, but more importantly our collection method used a standardized structured interviewing approach to reduce the subjective nature of people explaining their experiences.
The final example is a product launch process. You may be familiar with stage gate processes used in new product development. These can be very powerful in coordinating multiple development functions and controlling and aligning the decisions made within those functions. Product launches can literally take years and involve many different functional organizations. For this type of low repetition process it is useful to find short cycle examples. We looked at projects that were smaller in scope, but still contained the same phases and points of interaction. It is also useful to look at industry research on the topic. Phase gate processes have been around for a few decades at this point, so it was easy to read papers on the topic, compare them to our processes and adapt the methodology into our own practices. For this project it was important for us to establish a tool for tracking so that we could construct a measurement system as the new process moved forward. It took years, but we did eventually start to get useful data on the process.
Everything is a process and every process has waste and variation. Just because a process does not repeat often does not mean we should ignore or avoid the challenge of identifying and root causing the waste and variation. As with any process improvement, the approach is to collect whatever information is available, while being thoughtful in the evaluation of the information, and putting in place data tracking that can be used for future analysis.