Take the Challenge: Improve Your Processes

This could be critical to your company’s future growth and success.

Everything can be improved; it’s just a matter of taking the time to evaluate how things are currently being done. Start by digging in to any process and asking a lot of questions. Often the answer to why a process is the way it is will echo “We’ve always done it that way,” or “We had a problem with that once, and since then we . . .” or even “I don’t know, I just do what I’m told.” These answers may explain why things have been done a certain way in the past, but they actually also present opportunities for doing things a different way in the future.

In looking for different (and hopefully better) processes, there are many tools at your disposal. Flow charts can show all of the steps involved in the process and point out delays that can occur; value stream maps can show the time wasted on non-value-added activities; The “Five Whys” technique is a simple approach used to identify causes for events; and cause-and-effect diagrams (also known as “fishbone” diagrams) can depict many different reasons for things going wrong or not happening at all. These tools are all great and serve their purposes, but they also need to be put to use by a team of people who are given the task of finding a better way.

Selecting such a team for improving any process is a critical first step. This team should be comprised of people familiar with the process and others who may not be as familiar with it. This blend of member types has proven to be effective in improving processes of various kinds. The “familiar” members possess the expertise to explain the process and provide answers to the questions of who, what, when, where and how. The “unfamiliar” members can contribute by being objective and open-minded. They can also ask the questions that the others may not think to ask, as well as bring to the table different types of expertise that can prove useful in improving the process.

Once the team has been selected, it’s time to analyze the process, and break down its strengths and weaknesses. There are strengths to every process, otherwise it likely would never have been established in the first place. A strength may be as basic as the fact that the process delivers the desired result, and that is a good thing. Any strength needs to be leveraged. Yet there will likely also be associated weaknesses, such as performance irregularity, inconsistency of output or variability in duration. All of these may be surprisingly common in the existing process. Once the process weaknesses are revealed, improvement opportunities should become increasingly apparent. 

After improvements to the process are identified and agreed upon, they need to be documented, and there are many ways to accomplish this. Traditional written documentation certainly has a place, as long as it is easy to understand by those who carry out the process. Photos and videos also have a place, and can often make documentation easier to understand. Whatever method is chosen, it is important that it is completed quickly so that the improvements can be put in place and the benefits realized. Too often, a team develops good ideas for improvement, but these ideas do not get implemented because someone “drops the ball” on completing the necessary documentation. 

The next step is training those who implement the process in the changes. This training may need to be repeated, or reinforced, at various intervals to assure that the information is retained. We often make the mistake of assuming that others understand things simply because we understand them. In his study of learning retention, Piotr Wozniak developed the “Super-Memo” model, which asserts that in order to really retain some information, you must refresh your memory of it one day, 10 days, 30 days and 60 days after you have learned it. Following this model leads to a higher learning-retention rate (some have reported retention rates as high as 95 percent). Unfortunately, if information that is learned is not used or refreshed, most of it will be substantially forgotten after 60 days. As frustrating as it may seem to continue on this path of training and retraining, we must accept that this is what it takes for the training to deliver desired results. 

Finally, the effectiveness of the improvements must be evaluated once they are in use. Did the changes deliver the results we expected or fall short in certain areas? What works needs to be reinforced and possibly expanded to other areas of the company. What does not work needs to be changed (and there will be times when great ideas do not lead to great processes).

Improving processes can be challenging, but it is critical to any company’s future growth 
and success.