It’s Still All About the Process

Processes are the foundation of manufacturing businesses. Take the time to review your processes for relevancy and fix those that do not meet requirements.

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A number of years ago I wrote a column titled “It’s All About the Process.” The theme of the column was that everything we do is a process. Whether we are part of a sales, operations or administrative group, just about every activity performed changes the condition of something in order to achieve an outcome. Sales activities change customer needs into orders. Operations changes raw material or components into products customers require. Administrative activities change information from one form to another so other activities can occur. As everything is a process, we must periodically review them and take steps to ensure their effectiveness if we are going to have a successful business. The more frequently we can review what we do and fix what is broken, the better our chance of remaining competitive.

All these years later, I remain convinced that process is the foundation of business and that we must continuously strive to make our own processes as effective as possible. We do this not only through periodic review of process capability and effectiveness, but with an unwavering commitment to establishing appropriate metrics to see just how effective our processes are. After all, if we do not know how well our processes are working, how do we know if they need to be changed?

If legacy processes go unchallenged, they become self-sustaining even if they no longer serve a purpose.

When reviewing any process, we should first understand the purpose of the process. To ensure widespread understanding, this purpose has to be described in simple terms, such as “to ensure employee safety,” “to machine a part to specification,” or “to ensure timely payment is made to our suppliers.” If we are unable to describe the purpose of a process in terms such as these, we likely have a process that will cause confusion and will not work as intended. (You can always confirm whether people understand the purpose of a process simply by asking them.) Some processes often have a legacy associated with them. They may have been developed at a certain time, with a specific purpose and good intentions. However, if these legacy processes go unchallenged, they become self-sustaining even if they no longer serve a purpose. I have seen situations in which reports are generated and never read, data is collected and never reviewed, and paper copies of electronic files are printed and stored in drawers “just in case.” Legacy processes such as these are certainly candidates for elimination, whereas processes that still have a relevant purpose should be maintained, with an eye toward possible improvement.

Once we are clear on a process’s purpose, we must determine whether it is being followed. Even processes with a relevant purpose may veer off course from time to time. For example, most companies can find instances of different computer numerical control (CNC) programs for the same part with the same revision code, paper copies of part drawings being used by machine operators that do not match the drawings that are on the CAD system, preventive maintenance schedules developed and never followed, machine operators and inspectors both using inspection tools that have either an expired or missing calibration sticker, and even corrective actions documented (as required by a quality management system) and never implemented. It is hard to know if a process needs to be fixed if it is not being followed as intended. Valid processes that have veered off course may require additional employee training or better communication of expectations.

Finally, we may find that relevant processes are being followed but not achieving desired results. Here is where performance metrics are so critical as they provide a means of objectively evaluating the effectiveness of a process. A metric such as takt time, the rate at which a process must be completed in order to meet customer demand, is ideal for determining whether a process can “keep up.” If it cannot, a review of tools, fixtures, required resources, available inventory, yield rates, equipment downtime and more is warranted. A metric such as quote conversion rate can serve as a lead indicator of incoming business, as well as provide insight to the type of business you are getting and the return on time invested in the quoting process (with a low conversion rate indicating that much of the time spent quoting provides little or no direct benefit to the business). Performance on this metric may result in reworking the quoting process, changing how customers are targeted or even changing the existing pricing model.

Where good processes promote good performance, bad processes lead to the opposite. Keeping the processes in place that work well makes sense but fixing processes that do not achieve desired results is one of the best things any business can do.

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