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  • Writer's pictureChris Butterworth

Getting Started with Process Improvement

There are a lot of people who are responsible for business process improvement and it can be a daunting task. Where does one begin?

All companies face countless problems with products and processes. Customer complaints, late deliveries, parts that don't fit, mislabelled items, errors in drawings and instructions, etc.

Where to start?

You need to know which problems rank on top. Getting this information is a significant effort on its own. Don't take short cuts and don't overlook this important step. The difference between your company's number one problem and one that is four or five down in the listing could be worth six figures. What a waste to be working on the wrong problem.

You need to be able to put everything on the same scale. How do you compare late deliveries to rejected assemblies? Or a single customer complaint to a machine breakdown? These things aren't easy. The best approach is to quantify everything in dollars as best you can because dollars are the units of business. You'll hit a few walls as you get started because most things aren't easily converted to dollars. But you have to try and you have to accept inaccuracy. Here's why. It won't matter if you are 20% off on your estimate of a problem when that problem is number 10 on your list anyway. The top problems in the organization will outrank others by 100% and more.

In order to be effective you need to be able to concentrate your efforts on one or two projects. Don't take on too much.

Now you need to determine how to resolve the problem. There are lots of tools in the world of process improvement. Most of us use the tools that come from Lean and Six Sigma. The disciplines of Quality Engineering and Statistical Engineering contain a whole lot more. For a person new to the field, its overwhelming.

Top problems are going to be elusive. They're going to fight back. That's how they got there in the first place so expect to spend a lot of time in the analysis stage.

Process improvement is a scientific endeavour and so it requires data and analytics. Don't get caught up with looking for creative ideas. Creativity is a great human attribute but you're facing a process that isn't performing as well as it should. Something in the process is causing that to happen. It's not about being creative. It's about connecting the dots. Collect evidence, analyse data, understand correlations and make sure you have adequate levels of confidence (e.g. 95%) before drawing conclusions about anything.

Does the process always perform poorly or just sometimes? Are these poor performing times random or is there any pattern? What else is happening when the process is running rough? Running smooth. Take as much data as you can get your hands on and mine through it. Look for patterns, clusters, structures, outliers, etc. Look at charts of your process when the problem exists and when it does not. When you spend time trying to understand your processes through data analysis, you greatly increase your chance of determining the root cause. Be dilligent and take several samples. Don't let small sample sizes convince you of anything.

Record your results and share them with others. Often times a pattern in the data will ring true with someone. A shift in the process might coincide with a maintenance activity. Only the maintenance guy would pick up on that. Think of yourself as a detective solving a crime. Once you have a root cause, a solution, prove it to yourself by turning it on and off three or four times. If you can demonstrate control like that, you've succeeded. Quote - “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.” - Albert Einstein

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