Process improvement experts all agree that any improvement project hoping to succeed needs to approach the situation prepared with the right tools.
What are some of the top tools and techniques that process experts recommend?
1. Process Mapping
One of the initial steps towards improving your processes is mapping them. Having a tool such as the commonly used Microsoft Visio becomes necessary for complex and high-level processes.
Some workflow and process automation software will come with a very similar drag-and-drop process designer that can not only be used to map processes, but is then the direct correlation and rule set for the flow of documents and tasks in the automation software. This saves an extra step later on if planning to automate.
Process maps are useful communication tools that help improvement teams see where changes can be made for the better, and visualize difference future states of the processes.
2. Process Flowcharting
Similar to process maps, the process flowchart dives just a bit deeper to record exactly what is being done in a process, and in what order. Standardization of flowchart symbols, arrows, etc. allow the process flowchart to be understood by all in the organization, not just the process specialists.
While process mapping is undertaken by experts and can be very complex to see the potential inside of, the process flowchart helps break things down in a common language so that all affected members can start to visualize what the process might become in the future.
3. Statistical Process Control
Statistical Process Control (SPC) is a toolkit for managing processes that can be as essential as needed to any process efforts. It is also a strategy for reducing the variability in products, deliveries, materials, equipment, attitudes and processes, which are the cause of most quality problems. SPC will reveal whether a process is “in control” – stable and exhibiting only random variation, or “out of control” and needing attention.
The strategy also automatically warns when performance deteriorates, and can assist with long-term defect reduction, identification of special or assignable causes, reduction or elimination of causes of variation and achievement of a level of performance as close to target as possible. This means that your process improvement project won't simply finish and deteriorate over time as those responsible for the project move on - it will remain a constant focus that contributes to the organization's success.
In SPC, numbers and information form the basis for decisions and actions, and a thorough data recording system is essential. In addition to the tools necessary for recording the data, there also exists a set of tools to analyze and interpret the data. An understanding of the tools and how to use them requires no prior knowledge of statistics, and can grant you the competitive edge in your industry.
The SPC technique requires several individual tools including control charts and check sheets to maintain visibility into the improvement effort itself.
4. Pareto Analysis
One of the most important factors in deciding why a process should be one way or another involves analyzing the resources and tasks involved to create the required outcome or result at the end of the process. By attributing these things to cause and effect, Pareto analysis will typically show us that 80% of the effect is generated by 20% of the cause, lending your workflow efficiency and the ability to do more with less.
Brainstorming that occurs through the improvement effort that can then be boiled down into a Pareto analysis will often allow the excess or "waste" to be eliminated before it ever settles in to be a part of your organization.
5. Fishbone or "Ishikawa" Diagram
Now that the importance of the cause-effect relationship is very clearly established, teams can start to analyze their pain points and figure out just exactly where loss is occurring. An Ishikawa diagram is a great tool for this, especially when teams have been facing the same problem for an extended period of time and fall into a rut.
The diagram allows broad or even semi-generic terminology to segment out the factors that influence a key problem, and then as team analysis occurs these are branched out further and further until areas where a lack of knowledge exists present themselves.
All of these are just a few tools that will aid in the effort - the real value comes in the human resource. Process tools require process improvement experts to utilize them to their full potential, and provide the best plan for improvement within your organization.