Process Improvement Demystified

Slalom Consulting—Michelle Vercellino

Michelle Vercellino is a business process excellence consultant based in Denver who is passionate about helping companies solve operational problems while focusing on continuous improvement.

In 2012, words like ‘Lean’, ‘Six Sigma’, ‘Process Improvement’, and ‘Continuous Improvement’ are being used every day in large and small organizations. These terms are thrown around more in conference rooms than a football during a Super Bowl game. But what do all these words really mean to a business? Have process methodologies now become the end instead of the means? NOT if applied correctly.

Each of the different process methodologies use standard tools and approaches to achieve a desired outcome, but the outcome, not the tool, is the most important company impact. One should always start with the end in mind. For example, what benefits, results, and realization does the business expect to achieve from the effort? How will the change impact the organizational processes? What does the future look like as compared to the current state? Who is impacted and why is the outcome critical to the company? Once these types of questions are answered, the appropriate methodology or toolkit can be selected to solve the business need.

No matter what methodology is selected, there are five tools that must be in every process improvement enthusiast’s toolbox to be successful:

  1. Charter
  2. Process map of current state
  3. Gap Analysis and Solution Identification
  4. Impact/Difficulty Matrix
  5. Implementation Plan

1. Charter: A project charter is key to any process initiative because it outlines the project definition, goals, scope, funding, sponsor, team members, and desired benefits. This document is the one piece of material that can kick-off a project, identify resources, keep an initiative focused, resolve misunderstandings, and serve as an executive summary all in one. While many organizations don’t see the need for a project charter initially, it will pay for itself over the duration of the project.

2. Process map of current state: A process map will help gain mutual understanding of process and operations within an organization. Confusion occurs with a lack of understanding and process maps ensure everyone is on the same page. It is recommended to build the current state process map as a cross-functional team to truly understand who is doing what, when, where, and why. Maps also visually represent problem areas and complexity that can be hidden if mentioned in discussions alone. From a change perspective, employee involvement from the beginning will lead to greater adoption of the potential change.

3. Gap Analysis and Solution Identification: Identifying what is wrong with the current process is the first step to determining how to fix the issues. Performing a gap analysis by comparing the current state map to the vision of the future will indicate ‘holes’ or ‘gaps’ in the process. Once the gaps are identified the team can brainstorm how to mitigate the gaps and design the ultimate solutions.

4. Impact/Difficulty Matrix: This tool is by far one of my favorites in my process toolbox. It is easy to understand and can be used in a small or large team setting. Typically after the solution identification has occurred, there are many solutions to potentially implement. How do you determine which solutions to go after first? This is where the impact/difficulty matrix can help. The team goes through each solution and ranks the impact (low or high) and difficulty (low or high) of each solution. The team then focuses on the high impact, low difficulty ideas, and the medium-high impact, medium-low difficulty solutions to implement first.

5. Implementation Plan: No process improvement initiative can truly succeed without a plan. Who will own certain tasks and what timeframe should they be completed? What metrics are impacted and what risks can be mitigated? When do communications start and what specifically will be implemented? Establishing a plan will keep the team on track and the process initiative moving forward in the right direction.

Improving processes includes ideas like combining steps, automation, and modifying how current activities are completed. The key to successfully improving a process is establishing a toolkit containing tools that can be applied across the board to achieve real and sustainable results. Determine which tools will help you meet your business objectives. Remember, realization of benefits is the ultimate goal and process tools are the means to get there.

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