Updated: Aug 2
Process Improvement - A Simple Introduction
Process Improvement is a broad term for continually developing better ways of working. Everything is a process and we encounter them throughout every day; from tying our shoes to manufacturing a car to making dinner. You can imagine how this looks for any process by clarifying, what's the THING going through the process? A shoelace going from untied to tide is a process. A bunch of ingredients transforming into dinner is a process. A million parts and pieces that are transformed into a car is a process. Regardless of the process, the key is that they all have a starting point and an endpoint with steps in the middle that transition the "thing" from its beginning stage to a finished product, service, or transaction.
The key to Process Improvement is first identifying the criteria that make the process "good". For my shoelace, it might be that the strings are even, the loops are symmetrical and it was tied in less than 5 seconds. For my dinner, it might be the presentation on the plate, the taste, the temperature, and the time it took to prepare. If we are in running a business operation, we must also be concerned with the cost or resources involved as well as the impact on the people working in the process - our employees.
What are process improvement tools?
Once we understand what a good job looks like for our process, we can then employ Process Improvement Tools to methodically identify ways to make it better. Process Improvement Tools used properly will guide us to recognize and prioritize the greatest opportunities, and then take action to create better ways of working. When we learn how to recognize the different components of a process, we begin to easily recognize problems or opportunities to improve. In our dinner example, if the taste of the dinner is not good, we may look to the quality of the ingredients, the storage methods, the preparation methods, the amount of time between plating and serving, etc. Viewing a process with simple Process Improvement Tools highlights the different potential improvements so that we can take action.
Process Improvement Tools assist us in swiftly recognizing where defects occur, where time is wasted, where unnecessary costs are incurred, where rework and repetitive tasks are wearing down our employees, where non-value-adding work is done, and where we are falling short of meeting customer and employee needs.
Process Improvement Tools to Boost Your Team's Productivity and Retention
One of the most common (and detrimental) misconceptions about employee retention is thinking that the way to improve employee morale is to focus attention on improving morale.
When employees are unhappy or unsatisfied with their work life, a pizza party or a casual Friday is like trying to empty the ocean with a solo cup.
People leave workplaces where they are not set up to utilize their competence, where they lack confidence or have lost enthusiasm about the work. We can call this a toxic environment, which means that there is definitely some bad combination of unclear or misaligned visions, confused goals, messy processes, or lack of support and direction.
What's it like to work in a process where it's easy to make errors, where repeated corrections and rework are just a part of the daily routine, where there are periods of chaos followed by periods of boredom, where it's difficult to find or use tools or resources to get the job done? It's frustrating. It's energy-sapping. It's unfulfilling. And the harder the team works, the more the process weaknesses are exposed - we just crank out defects faster.
Why Use Process Improvement Tools?
When it comes down to it, employees across the board need a clear vision of where the organization is headed, specific goals, clarity on their role, and good processes to work within.
The concept might sound simple, but the execution can be very difficult without the right structure and tools. Incorporating at least the basic Process Improvement Tools into your routine will provide a structure to begin improvement on the alignment of vision, clarifying roles, and developing high-quality processes. Leaders can more effectively provide the right balance of direction and support to their employees.
In order for employees to be productive and highly engaged in their work, they must have the following:
Good Work-life Balance
Transparency and honesty
Clear and efficient communication
A career pathway
A positive, healthy work environment
Recognition of their contribution
Every organization around the world is aware of these, but many times fall short because they don’t have the proper tools to support them. These are more than nice words, they are real and tangible factors that we can develop and continually improve.
Organizations that successfully implement Process Improvement Tools perform better in virtually every business category, including customer satisfaction and delight, highly engaged and competent employees, and an agile and scalable organization that runs with greater efficiency and reduced costs. Lean Six Sigma provides the competitive advantage and differentiation that so many companies demand and allows employees to contribute by creating a workplace that they truly enjoy. This is done through the application of Process Improvement Tools and methods to continually improve. Continuous Improvement is ongoing incremental changes that create happy customers, employees, and organizations with the goal and pursuit of perfection.
Top 5 Process Improvement Tools to Improve Performance
1. Cannsult Employee Development Model
Balance of leadership direction and support touches on all these factors. It helps to create an environment that promotes a better work-life balance, where skilled communication is practiced by all, and there is clarity on progression and a clear career path, which all contribute to a positive and healthy work environment.
This model was created by Cannsult to illustrate the predictable path that we go through as we develop a skill:
1) New Employee
2) Existing Employee/Task Changed
The goal of the model is to lay out the stages an employee goes through in terms of their skill and engagement on a specific task, and what leaders should do to best support them in each stage. Employee journeys are highly predictable in this way, and if leadership doesn’t understand the stages an employee is going through, and how to correctly guide them, they are in extreme danger of plummeting employee engagement or inadvertently stunting competence.
Leaders and employees often mistake these phases for permanent personality traits and this is not a correct way of thinking! For example, an employee who is at stage 2 is struggling to learn, they are making mistakes, which will make them disengaged on this specific task. If this task happens to be their whole job - and if they do not get the appropriate leadership direction and support - they (and their co-workers) might believe that they are just not a good fit. When in fact, they just haven't yet been set up for success.
Click below to download our free High-Def Employee Development PDF
2. Leader Standard Work
Helps with: Work-life balance, transparency, and honesty, clear communication, recognition.
Leader standard work is a Lean concept that has been adopted across almost every industry. Leader standard work is surely a shift in traditional leadership philosophy; a shift to critical work that leaders must do to reinforce and sustain improvements in culture, performance, and practices.
Leader Standard work lays out the critical daily and monthly tasks that a leader is to complete. Keeping track of this has a few essential uses.
It keeps leaders accountable for their everyday work.
Managers know exactly what tasks employees are responsible for daily.
Gaining a visual of what tasks are being completed and which are not gives insight into an employee's workload, and if it needs to be altered in any way.
3. The 8 Wastes
Helps with: Clear communication, a positive, clean work environment.
The 8 wastes is a very popular practice in many organizations around the world. Finding and eliminating waste in the workplace is essential to a healthy workplace, and waste gone unaddressed can be a plague to employee happiness.
Read more in-depth about the 8 wastes, and the waste that pertains most to employee happiness.
4. Visual Performance Management
Helps with: Clear communication, a positive, clean work environment, transparency, and honesty, recognition.
It doesn’t get much more clear than putting performance up for all to see! And yet this simple task is done poorly, or not at all, but most organizations. VPM uses easy-to-understand visuals to communicate key information about a workplace ‘at a glance‘. VPM is a way to communicate any and all information possible but most commonly is used as a way to display information about expectations, performance, and standards for a department or company as a whole. The key here is that communicating this information visually requires no interpretation to understand. That means, regardless of whether I am familiar with the workplace, or not, I should be able to instantly see the current state of work, navigate my way around the area, or track how the team is performing versus target.
5. Service Level Agreements
Helps with: Clear communication, transparency, and honesty. Service-level agreements create alignment and collaboration between internal, cross-functional teams. SLAs drive clear communication and accountability and allow teams to set and maintain high standards and expectations between functions.
Why You Should Care About Improving Your Processes
Continually improving your processes means that we keep a keen focus on those things that get in the way of doing a good job. One of the core concepts of Six Sigma is a continual drive for perfection, which in statistical terms is 6 Sigma (or technically, 99.9997% quality). A typical process that has not been improved in the last 18 months will perform between 70% (that's a 2 Sigma process) and 93% quality (that's a 3 Sigma process). This is a massive difference from every perspective; from the customer experience to employee engagement and of course, to the bottom line.
Process Improvement involves changing major business processes that cut across organizational barriers. It is the way that the organization can achieve strategic goals and succeed even through major challenges. Continuous Improvement efforts must start with leadership, who is responsible for the performance of the organization as a whole. Lean Six Sigma must be implemented from the top down. Some improvements and deployments can start at middle or deeper levels in the organization, but the impact on the overall performance of the organization will be significantly limited without the strong direction and support of leadership.
Leadership starts the process of Continuous Improvement by identifying gaps between our current results and processes and our goals or objectives. These gaps and opportunities – or ideas for improvements – come from many sources. For example, we receive feedback from customers on what they like, what they don’t like, and what they need from us. We receive input from employees when we hear about frustrations and repetitive problems in the different functions and daily issues that don’t seem to get better. There are many other changes and demands from external forces that affect our organizations on a regular basis. Through regular assessments and closely monitoring processes, leadership can identify where we have the greatest opportunities to improve – that is – to reduce waste and to increase value. And this entire cycle – monitoring, assessing, prioritizing, and selecting areas of focus and then executing improvements – needs to be driven by and consistently supported by Leadership.
So how is the process actually improved? When leadership has identified the areas of focus, teams of people who are competent in the improvement methods, are deployed to skillfully and methodically apply the CI tools. This includes deliberate and strategic daily actions as well as longer-term or more complex projects. The common tools used in CI are the identification and reduction of the Eight Wastes, understanding and improving the Value Stream, Visual Performance Management & Daily Problem Solving, 5S (which is Workplace Organization), and Standardized Work to promote consistency, efficiency, and quality. And then we have the larger project structures of DMAIC for Process Improvement or Root Cause Analysis projects and Process Design or Re-Design. These Process Improvement Tools, when applied properly, will materialize in continual improvement.
With a foundation of Leadership Support and Continuous Improvement, and the skilled application of Process Improvement Tools, teams become stronger and better at communication; that is, they understand their role, they have mechanisms to communicate with each other and between functions, they have a solid understanding of their customers and they have structures in place to quickly and effectively identify and resolve issues. They are competent at problem-solving, which allows them to continually improve their workplace. Through delivering greater value to our customers and greater efficiency internally, the result is a delighted and engaged customer as well as a confident and enthusiastic workforce. And this is something that is worth going after. This type of result doesn’t happen by chance… it takes deliberate focus and actions and it is an achievable goal to strive for.
Integrating the basic Process Improvement Tools into your team's routine will give your team the structure that they need to improve their own environment, give them ownership, better serve customers and create a more profitable business. Pretty great results for a few simple tools!