Process Excellence Week 2014 - Look out for the Bear Traps!


Lately I have been somewhat bombarded with information about an event called PEX – Process Excellence Week going on the week after next in Florida. Seems like a high potential, but also high danger event to me. By way of full disclosure one of the reasons for my being subject to such bombardment is that the host of the blog – iDatix – is participating. That said, I have no involvement in it and didn’t know my buddies at iDatix were cavorting with the PEX folks until the bombardment began.

At any rate, the event looks to be basically process optimization with a heavy IT spin, and therein lies both the potential and the danger. Looking over the event, if someone were planning to attend and asked me what to look for, and what to look out for, here’s what I would tell them:

Beware of the big business, big organization Six Sigma wizards who are there to share their success stories. Most of the time those stories include claims to have saved vast amounts of money – none of which made its way to the bottom line in a manner than can be credibly traced. Big company Six Sigma is generally the poster child for mythical savings. When they do actually improve the bottom line, it is the result of outsourcing, more often than not, and the savings are a short term boon and a long term disaster.

The thrust of the event is IT support for process optimization and that is a very tricky area. The problem is that IT itself is non-value adding waste, so investing in IT is investing in process de-optimization. That is not to say it is necessarily bad but any investment in IT should be done cautiously. I have been at this for a long time and I have never seen a $million+ IT investment result in rue process excellence. Instead, it typically results in higher overhead without much meaningful impact of the processes. Information tools to put critical, basic information in front of people who can actually improve the processes should be simple and relatively cheap.

If the ‘process excellence’ solution being sold requires a permanent addition to the IT staff to support the process excellence effort it is probably not a very good idea. Far too often such tools result in little more than institutionalizing more waste than they will ever help reduce. Same with training. If it takes more than a few hours – a day at most – for the people involved in the process to learn how to use the tool it is way too complicated – which means too expensive and unlikely to be very helpful.

Be wary of any software that is intended to put information in front of someone who does not add value – Six Sigma black belts, lean coordinators, executives, production planners, etc…. The chances of such a system doing any more than merely institutionalizing people who do not add value are slim indeed. The most effective IT process improvement tools are designed to share information among the value adding folks working along the process you want to optimize. It should not require some big-brained staff type apart from the value creation chain to digest, analyze, filter and interpret the information.

Run away as fast as you can from any software that is hard coded with the methodology for process improvement. The most effective tools are those that will support however process improvement works best in your organization, within your culture. (For that matter, avoid any ideologue who tells you there is only one way – i.e. some prescribed Six Sigma routine or some consultant’s preset forms defining how kaizen events must be conducted – to analyze and improve processes.) Think Excel. It is such an enduring and powerful tool because it doesn’t tell you how to analyze anything. Instead, it supports just about anything you want to analyze in any way you want to analyze it. Any process excellence tool should be user defined and user controlled like Excel, rather than executed in the manner some software designer decided was the best way to run your business.

If you can avoid all of those bear traps, however, it looks like there is quite a bit of interesting stuff at PEX 2014. There is little downside from listening to what so many well-intentioned folks are doing in the cause of process optimization. Wish I could be there!

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