Process Improvement Methodology

- how to implement process improvement - ideas on the types of process improvement methodology that can be implemented.

While process improvement is a key element in running a successful organisation, it is necessary to adopt a process improvement methodology.

By adopting a process improvement methodology, it is possible to structure and organise the activities.

Many process improvement initiatives fail or do not bring the expected results because there is little or no aim to the activities undertaken. Adopting the right process improvement methodology will ensure that activities are coordinated and focussed to ensure the maximum benefit.

Process improvement methodology overview

Although there are many different elements to any process improvement methodology, it can be split into three main areas for simplicity. These can be subdivided later to see the exact stages in the overall process improvement methodology.

  • Set up and preparation:   One of the key areas of any process improvement methodology is the preparation. Setting up a team, selecting the required process and setting the aims and targets is key to the final success.
  • Process simplification:   In order to investigate any process, it is necessary to map out exactly what occurs during the process and then simplify it so that the main stages and elements of the process can be identified. This is often more difficult than may appear at first sight.
  • Implementation:   The implementation stage of the process improvement methodology is undertaken only when the foundations have been correctly set in place. In this way any process improvement team can move in the right direction with clearly defined goals and end points.

In any process improvement methodology it is normally necessary to implement a continuous process. In this way, the main issues can be addressed, followed by the smaller issues that may be less visible initially. Even when the process is operating to its goals, it is good practice to monitor the performance to ensure that no new problems arise. This may be achieved using and umbrella team with a wider remit of monitoring several processes or an given area of responsibility.

The Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle is used to see what impact a change may have had on any process.

Continuous process improvement methodology

Process improvement methodology steps

The process improvement methodology can be broken down into a number of steps that can be adopted when any process improvement activities are anticipated. The steps listed below, are not the only ones that may be considered, but may form the basis of any process that may be adopted.

  1. Initiation:   The first stage of any process improvement methodology is to select the process or area where the process improvement may be required. It is also key that SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bounded) goals are set in place.
  2. Create team:   Normally a team of people of whom many or most are involved with the process can be set up. It is essential that the right people are chosen for the team. They should all be able to work as a team, be familiar with the aims of the process improvement task, and should all be able to contribute. Other factors may also be involved in the choice of the relevant personal.
  3. Define existing process:   One of the key stages is to define the existing process in terms of a flow chart. This should include the major stages and not become too involved as this can cloud any issues of process improvement.
  4. Simplify process:   Having mapped the process, the next stage is to try to simplify it by removing any redundant stages, or looking at ways in which it can be undertaken more efficiently. Often someone from outside the department, but with a good understanding of processes can add significantly at this stage of the process improvement methodology.
  5. Define metrics & measurements:   In order to be able to quantify the process and determine whether any improvement have been made, and if so what they are it is necessary to define some metrics and the relevant measurements that need to be made.
    Typically the metrics should involve measurements that can be made easily. They often tend to be around the product or service at the output of the process. For example an electronics hardware design department that has designed an electronic circuit board may look at the number of change requests raised by the pre-production department and also the board complexity in terms of board nodes. In this way a metric of design errors for a given board complexity level can be seen and this can be tracked to see the trend.
    The definition of what metrics should be collected should be given a good level of thought and preparation. There is often a temptation to go out and measure everything. This wastes time and adds little benefit. Thought about what needs to be measured and what benefits any measurements will bring add significant value. Often a measurement at the output of the process viewed from the customer angle will reveal many things that can usefully be measured. Consider who the customer is and what they need.
  6. Assess process for stability:   This stage of the process improvement methodology assesses the process being studied to see whether it is stable and is always likely to give similar results. If the data collected indicates the results are very variable, them the process may be running without sufficient control. If the process is not sufficiently controlled, then it may be necessary to implement more controls
  7. Assess process for capability:   Using data collected assess the process to see whether it is fit for purpose and it is actually capable of successfully meeting the required output aims. It may be that significant errors are found, and these may be the reason for the process improvement being required.
  8. Identify root causes:   Where areas of instability and lack of capability have been found, it is necessary to try to discover the root cause. Techniques such as brainstorming, root-cause diagrams and even asking those who use the process can help identify the root causes. Other times, it may be necessary to implement further metrics to help assess a particular area. Often a Plan-Do-Study/Assess-Act cycle of change can be initiated at this point.
  9. Implement change:   Having identified an area where change should make an improvement. The plan to implement change can be undertaken in conjunction with the process map developed previously. Any changes should be recorded on the process map.
  10. Update metrics & data collection:   With the changed process in place, some metrics may need to be changed. If possible the output metrics should remain as similar as possible so that any changes in the output can be measured and assessed before and after the change. However new metrics may also be applicable. Data must be collected and then reviewed to check the stability and capability of the new system
  11. Determine feasibility of further change:   The final stage of any process change methodology assesses whether any further change is possible or necessary. This should be accomplished in conjunction with the initial SMART goals.

Metrics are essential in any process improvement methodology. Without metrics it has been said, you are just another person with an opinion.

Process improvement is not always fast. Often some quick fixes may be available, but others may take longer. Any process improvement methodology should account for the timescales required. Some quick fixes will give the team a boost and also start to improve the process, giving some fast dividends.

By Ian Poole

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