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How Do You Start Process Improvement? Case Example

Screen Shot 2015-08-19 at 3.19.38 PMThis international mid-sized company began by documenting current work processes when suppliers demanded ISO documentation to do business. ISO introduced the need for work process to the company. Then, led by the Quality Manager, the senior leaders made a company inventory, listing 80-100 core workflows (or processes) and reducing them to 30. These 30 became the foundation for future work. The CEO participated in this inventory but was not wholeheartedly behind looking at work processes as a means to improving work and the bottom line. He thought the “structure of process management” would ruin the casual friendly entrepreneurial culture.

For each of the 30 processes

  • They selected Process Owners who were in charge of strategy and change and Process Managers in charge of operations.
  • They identified process purpose, goals, customers, key strategic factors, and did modeling on a high level.

Then they prioritized which processes to work on in more detail based on which processes had at least one metric that was highly correlated with quantitative strategic company factors.

Once a process was selected for more detailed analysis, the process manager and Quality Manager worked together. The Process Manager defined the relationship to strategic factors, interviewed employees working in the current process, and recommended opportunities for improvement. The Quality Manager focused on the business need, business challenges, and other stakeholder knowledge. He also documented the workflow model using a tool with global standard notation.

But the particular analysis techniques and modeling applications were not what made the difference. It was engaging the manager and stakeholders with their real work, its data, and the roles in the process. A key question that the Quality Manager began with was “What frustrations do you have in this process? “ This question quickly focused the group on real work problems they experienced.

When they tackled a complicated claims process many long time employees initially felt the way they were currently doing the work was fine. After the improvements, the company reduced the interfaces, needed fewer people in the process, and workflow was much faster. When the long term employees recognized that understanding processes could help them work well together, they liked the idea. He said, “For our company processes are a means to communicating what is happening, and then looking at how we can do it better.”

To his surprise the CEO found that improving work execution made the organization more agile, and certification by ISO helped with marketing. He also got very good feedback from employees who appreciated the great clarity in roles, communication, and that they liked the process work and the improvements.

When getting started with process improvement it is best to keep the projects small and the modeling and analysis simple. The organization succeeded because they made operational improvements about the real work, they kept the method simple, and they started with quick wins like role clarification and work simplification. They also had project prioritization based on quantitative data showing the alignment of a process to the company’s strategy.   This prioritization provided a useful method for continuing to build more operational improvements for the company.

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15 comments to How Do You Start Process Improvement? Case Example

  • Josh

    Great post and very useful tips! What about a particular tools that may help in setting up and improving a workflow? I’m referring to Asana, Pyrus, Basecamp, etc.

  • Don O'Neill

    Start anywhere, but if you want a successful project then there must be commitment to stakeholders shared vision and value proposition.

  • Marc Kane

    This Case Study offers a lot of great info that aligns with your Methodology (as outlined in your book), however I would like to get more insight into the process prioritization activity. I assume that a Nine-box Matrix was used to aid in this activity?

    • shelley

      Marc, this colleague told me the prioritization process was based on strategy and relation of process metrics to their high level KPI’s. So it was not based on the 9 box matrix.

  • Lee-Anne Ostby

    This is very insightful. I do however feel that the company would have benefited from incorporating change management early on in this process. Doing an exercise such as Blueprinting your need for change and then putting a stakeholder analysis together would have aided in the discussion of what frustrates you. I enjoy that the staff had a say in the process and this builds the buy in from them too!

  • This is a good case study. It was interesting to me that they decided to tackle a complicated process to start with. I think to start with a relatively simpler process would help to setup confidence amongst teams. I am also interested in knowing more about how they convinced the long-term employees that the improvements were necessary.

  • Roden Bakasa

    II agree with Lee-Anne and would also add that to begin with, most organisations either already have some quality system at one end or no commitment at the extreme end. Quality awareness sessions in order to assess commitment and actually take everyone on the journey from the beginning need to be considered in order to incorporate change management early on. Culture change involves more than just process change. Some of the processes actually are important in the organisation such that change will not be straight forward and need the identification of key stakeholders who rely on the processes and work together to find value add streamlined processes.

    I also believe that KPIs need to be derived from organisational goals using techniques such as GQM Goal Question Metric (e.g. ASME)

  • Mallikarjun

    Very helpful post! I find that a simple question like “What frustrations do you have in this process?” brings in more participation and enables collect realistic pain points.

    I am curious to see the techniques that they used to reduce number of core workflows from 100 to 30 ! What method/technique was use in this process?


  • Steven Wallace

    Nice read. Often times, multiple processes interact (e.g. Design Control and Design Change). When working to optimize a process, do you work to limit “scope creep” into other processes, or do you let the data and stories lead you into the other affected processes as needed? For example, I recently worked on a process related to documenting information transfer and was surprised to hear that people purposely maintained a very general documentation strategy that was open to interpretation because the process to CHANGE a document later was so difficult. The team felt that the REAL problem was “not my process.”

    • shelley

      You raise an interesting conundrum. I would have to know more. Clearly the current process has a number of work arounds, and they may not all be good.

  • Sruthi

    In organizations that are not assembly-line/manufacturing driven, but rather technology driven, often the process improvement revolves around the technology in use or the available automation/streamlining options. While this may not result in the optimal process improvement, companies would identify the biggest pain points they are trying to solve for and focus on the quick wins that would have the highest ROI as a result of the Process Improvement efforts. This company identified 80-100 core process but addressed 30 of them. The resulting ISO certification is a huge win for the company that now also has highly engaged and motivated employees. A good lesson to remember is to commit to process improvement not with the intention of solving every problem within the organization but to focus on the ones that have the highest impact for the organization.

  • AnaMaria

    Useful case study. I would like to learn more about the most successful ways to get people onboard with the new process improvement initiative, especially the long-term employees as it can be a great challenge.

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