A broken business process can cost your business time and money. However, pinpointing exactly where a process breaks down and where it can be improved is not an exact science.
What is process improvement?
Process improvement involves the business practice of identifying, analyzing and improving existing business processes to optimize performance, meet best practice standards or simply improve quality and the user experience for customers and end-users.
Process improvement can have several different names but they all pursue the same goal that is to minimize errors, reduce waste, improve productivity and streamline efficiency.
What are the common Process improvement techniques?
There are several different methodologies designed to help organizations tackle process improvement. Each aims to help your business identify process issues, fix them and analyze the success or failure of those changes.
Despite that common goal, each methodology suits a different need. Some frameworks focus on lean process improvement techniques and others focus on getting culture in the right place for process improvement. There are also methodologies that help companies visually map out process workflows.
Kaizen: Kaizen promotes continuous improvement with a strong emphasis on lean and agile practices. Kaizen focuses on improving quality, productivity and efficiency through small shifts in daily work or corporate culture to foster an environment that does not punish errors or mistakes, but instead works to prevent them from happening again.
5S: The 5S model is part of the Kaizen and Lean methodologies and it stands for five main steps namely sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. The 5S model helps bring more consistency to process improvement and can standardize process improvement.
PDCA: Also part of the Kaizen methodology, PDCA stands for plan, do, check and act. It helps organizations be more efficient when identifying processes that need improvement. You first identify the problem (plan), create and implement a solution (do), evaluate data for effectiveness (check) then document the results and implement the plan if it is successful (act).
Six Sigma: Six Sigma is a popular process improvement methodology that pulls workers up through ranks classified using karate belts. You start as a green belt and learn your way up to a black belt. Six Sigma involves two ways to break down process improvement through specific steps. These steps include define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) and define, measure, analyze, design and verify (DMADV).
Cause and Effect Analysis: Another tool born from Six Sigma is Cause and Effect Analysis, which involves using a diagramming method to fix problems the first time by identifying the problem, discovering roadblocks and pinpointing why the process is not working.
SIPOC analysis: As a diagram format that falls under the Six Sigma methodology, SIPOC analysis happens during the measuring stage of DMAIC or DMADV. SIPOC helps organizations define and establish a process improvement project as well as identify requirements and necessary elements before starting.
Value stream mapping (VSM): VSM helps organizations visually represent customer’s perceptions of a business process, which helps identify the value of a product, process or service to the organization. Similar to other methodologies, it is highly focused on eliminating waste, redundancy and being as lean as possible.
Total Quality Management (TQM): Focused on cultivating long-term success through customer satisfaction. TQM helps organizations get the entire company on board with continuous process improvement. It is a methodology that empowers workers by fostering a culture where employees are not afraid to make mistakes and are driven towards a shared business goal.
Kanban: Kanban is a tool for process workflow visualization that gets business units, leadership and employees on the same page for process improvement. It is another methodology that incorporates and encourages lean process improvement.
Process mapping: Another workflow visualization that helps companies map out a plan for process improvement is process mapping. It can also be called a process flowchart, process chart, functional flowchart and process model. Ultimately, it is the process of creating a flow diagram that delivers vital information about a process workflow from start to finish.
Automation’s role in process improvement
Because it is one of the easiest ways to improve processes is to eliminate manual toil and reduce human error, automation plays a significant role in process improvement. Process automation helps organizations understand where they need to improve and what is working, as it should.
Systems like digital file transfer services, email and Internet calling serve to accelerate data transfer and communication while reducing costs. To use email as an example, businesses can transfer data and send messages to suppliers and clients in seconds with the click of a button, as opposed to systems like traditional mail and face-to-face communication that require longer travel times and larger investments. In communication, the productivity benefits of IT implementation are two-fold, both reducing the time it takes to access or transfer data and increasing the productivity of investments in communication through lower costs.
Robotic process automation (RPA) is a hot topic in automation and businesses have embraced the practice to streamline processes. It allows organizations to mimic human actions for tasks or steps involved in complex processes. Automation occurs through a string of rules and triggers that eliminate the need for manual labor in specific parts of the process and allow the RPA to do what a human previously had to do.
Some process improvements that are automated with RPA includes automated email responses, online order processing, categorizing help desk tickets, transferring data between systems and payroll management. This not only helps create more efficiency around business process, but it also helps free up workers to focus on more complex tasks that automation cannot handle.