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Approaches to Process Improvement

Approaches to Process Improvement

Businesses, whether commercial or not for profit organizations, inevitably have a wish to remain in operation; to have sustainable and repeatable business; and to satisfy stakeholders, customers and employees. For many this brings a need to examine their operational processes in order to improve and advance such objectives. On this basis such process improvement may be regarded as being a systematic effort to provide an understanding of every aspect of a company’s processes in order to reduce rework, variation, and needless complexity in order to contribute to its performance through improved effectiveness and efficiency. Completion of a process improvement examination exercise is often seen to be a traditional springboard for much larger business improvements which may in turn incrementally develop into a large-scale change management programme and planned organizational development. Indeed what may begin therefore a simple “local” business improvement may grow into other initiatives aimed at delivering more substantial change and hence increased business-wide implications. The evolution through a range of such business programmes is shown below.

The Re-engineering Spectrum
From ‘Business Process Re-engineering: myth and reality.’
Professor Colin Coulson-Thomas, 1996

Whilst the obvious starting point is to gain an understanding and evaluation of an organization’s current processes in order to identify where waste and/or rework occurs it is also possible to take a more “visionary” approach and look to producing new processes without the constraints or inhibitions imposed by an organization’s current operations and capability. This Envision stage exists in the standard Business Process Re-engineering (BPR) methodology and requires an identification of any gaps to be undertaken and quantified in order to identify the level of transition necessary to achieve the “to be” processes of the organization compared with those of the organization’s current “as is” position. A widely employed approach to BPR is shown in the Figure below; where the starting point on the model may be either at the Evaluate or Envision stage; although both stages will need to be ultimately addressed.

Business Improvement Process
From ‘The Essential Management Toolbox: Tools, Models and Notes for Managers and Consultants.’
S. A. Burtonshaw-Gunn, 2008

One of the well known and commonly used models in Europe is the EFQM Business Excellence Model which itself has similarities to the American ‘Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award’ both of which prompt organizations to look at their processes and in particular question how they are developed, used, reviewed and updated. At a higher level the Business Excellence Model also promotes the use of ‘best practise’ benchmarking with other companies and places great emphasis on performance measurement over time allowing trend analysis to be undertaken. This performance measurement can be from qualitative data from customer or employee feedback, or from quantitative data such as financial reports, defect rates, labour turnover, absenteeism etc. and used to examine the alignment relationship of the company processes to its business and customer requirements.

One of the models which can be used to compare and contrast similar processes in an organization, especially if these are undertaken at different locations, is the POLDAT approach first used by the American Computer Services Corporation, and is used to record:

  • The Processes undertaken.
  • The Organization setting.
  • The Location of where the processes are undertaken.
  • The Data that is managed.
  • The Application of the Data, and finally.
  • The Technology used in undertaking the task.

The use of the POLDAT process provides a systematic approach to selecting and recording performance whether at the company, department or activity level and lends itself to being a basis of comparison with the same activities undertaken in different locations. Such a comparison prompts questions around the model components such as details of the process; the organization’s resources in terms of roles, responsibilities and numbers; the use, level and extent of technology involved in undertaking each activity etc in order to perform the same work output. Where process improvement is sought across a wide geographical area companies can often address process improvement through the establishment of virtual teams, external consultant input or assign their own full-time staff charged to undertaking process improvement activity across an organization. However, it has to be said that the later is more commonly used in the larger organizations where the internal cost of establishing and operating such a team is more easily absorbed by the business.

One of the most used tools in this area is that of process mapping which encourages detailed investigation and analysis of how the company discharges its day-to-day work. Process maps are usually presented in the form of a flow diagram and often have their own drawing convention. Whilst flow charts may be drawn in common IT programme such as Microsoft Powerpoint or Excel, there are a number of process-mapping software programmes such as ‘Visio’, ‘Flowcharter Plus’ and ‘Process Expert Professional’ - the later being favoured by some public sector organisations for example. In looking at the process language there are a number of mapping conventions such as British Standards, ASME Standard for Process Charts, and so on. In widespread use is the internationally recognised ‘Unified Modelling Language’. However, the choice of these is of little consequence as it is the task of process mapping itself that provides an understanding of the current processes which can then be later developed into new processes aimed to provide real performance benefits. If the process cannot be drawn using these mapping symbols then it is suggested that the process itself is not sufficiently understood. In looking at the timing – or perhaps more accurately the order of such an investigation – the starting points of Evaluate or Envision shown in the Business Improvement process above suggests either of these two stages provides an appropriate starting point providing that this is supported by the organization and those requesting an analysis of the organization’s processes and performance.

Process improvement can also draw heavily on benchmarking an organization’s processes with those of other businesses, although in practice finding “best practice” examples is not always easy, and often some examples are difficult to transfer between companies due to cultural or other operational differences. This is not to suggest that benchmarking is of little value but that the elements of best practice championed by one organization may not always be applicable to others. It should also be noted that closer collaborative working can also provide useful insights into process performance improvements where instead of whole process transfers, smaller “nuggets” of best practice may be identified which can be incorporated into providing increased organizational performance. The following six step approach to benchmarking is proposed:

1. Define which process or practice is to be benchmarked and what you currently do.
2. Identify any best practice award winners in the area you wish to benchmark and list contact persons who could be potential partners.
3. Select and approach benchmark partners and explain the potential benefits to both sides.
4. Conduct one or more benchmark visits and identify learning points and provide feedback to the benchmark partner.
5. Use the learning points to create a benchmark report and options.
6. Agree the next steps and trial implementation improvements.

In almost all cases – irrespective of the starting position – a typical process improvement investigation will follow the use the process mapping to show the sequence of activities, flow of information, decision points and the range of possible process outcomes. Whilst simple process mapping provides a logical sequential account of the activities under investigation this may be further refined by mapping the activities to align with individual roles or groups of staff and thus provide an organizational linkage between the process activities and the HR structure. The most common method of this linkage is by producing process maps arranged in ‘swim-lanes’ headed by the appropriate resource grouping or individual post holders. This method also allows the identification of those who should be involved in the current (as-is) process mapping together with identifying organizational changes on development of the “to-be” process maps. Again the swim-lane approach provides a relatively easy method to understand the contribution made by groups (or individuals) which can then be cross referenced with the existing or new role/ job descriptions. The lanes can be punctuated with stage markers just as are used in a swimming pool providing an easy indication for the process user of what part of the process they are involved in and the following major stages to be undertaken. Performance improvements can be made by building on the process mapping work – not just in modifying existing processes or introducing new ones – but by removing duplicated work or introducing changes to provide a closer synergy between related process maps. Critical examination of the roles and responsibilities of the staff undertaking the processes often provides opportunities to further improve performance requirements including resource management and succession planning necessary to maintain operational performance. From a HRM or staff training perspective, process mapping also supports a clear understanding of the business processes for employees new to an organization or department. In considering this from a more strategic viewpoint process mapping, its development and adherence should be linked to wider Quality Assurance company requirements where applicable.

The final model provides some further practical prompts to those tasked with seeking process improvements. The questions shown below can be used either by an individual process-mapper or by a group in a workshop environment to facilitate further process improvement following an examination of the “as-is” process maps and the development of the new “to-be” process improvements. The Primary Questions are initially designed to check that all of the required information has been obtained; after which the next stage is to enquire why the identified process steps are undertaken, their sequence and the organizational benefits from undertaking them. However, greater value may be obtained as a result of addressing the Secondary Questions as it is these that initiates deeper investigation of the proposed “to be” process and ultimately contribute to achieving improved performance. Such questioning should also suggest that the process developer considers the implications of not doing parts of the process and the external impact on the organization’s current or potential Customers or Stakeholders. It is finally suggested that the items which need to change can be captured and used as part of the Change Management process.

What is achieved
WHY? What else could be achieved? WHAT SHOULD be achieved?
How is it achieved?
WHY THAT WAY? How else could it be achieved? HOW SHOULD it be achieved?
When is it achieved?
WHY THEN? When could it be achieved? WHEN SHOULD it be achieved?
Where is it achieved?
WHY THERE? Where else could it be achieved? WHERE SHOULD it be achieved?
Who achieves it?
WHY THAT PERSON? Who else could achieve it? WHO SHOULD achieve it?

Process Map Development