Lean. Six Sigma. Kaizen. These methods of process improvement can be effective, but they are sometimes the wrong tool for the job. In project management, I’ve found them helpful in certain circumstances but I’ve frequently yearned for something broader; a simple framework for process development and process improvement.
In a word, processes are about efficiency. Businesses don’t string tasks together just to do it; there’s the expectation of a tangible return in the form of reduced cost, improved quality, better flow, or something else that helps the bottom line. With efficiency in mind, I approach process development and improvement like this:
All processes need to begin with the end in mind. What is the intended result, product, or deliverable? Once you know what you’re driving towards, you can start sequencing the core tasks that feed into that end goal. The outputs of one task should feed into another as the inputs; otherwise why have that task? It’s important to note, however, that the sequence of tasks should be designed to be repeatable. Ultimately a process is meant to be run through hundreds if not thousands of times, so keeping things repeatable is important.
In the define stage, you need to answer these three questions:
- What is the end result, product, or deliverable?
- What are all of the tasks that need to take place to produce this end result product or deliverable?
- What sequence of tasks is best for repeatability?
Once you have laid out these answers, write down your process flow and run a few cycles. See how it works and track the results!
When refining a process, you need to measure the goal (produce X units at Y cost, etc.) against the actual results and adjust accordingly. It’s not enough to say that the process was successful; there needs to a qualitative metric that can be tracked and compared against the original goal.
If the defined process is producing results in line with the chosen benchmark, then great! Go on to the next stage. If not, then look at ways each task can be altered to improve its metrics. Can tasks be re-sequenced to decrease the duration of a process cycle? Can an expensive material be replaced by a cheaper alternative while maintaining quality? Once areas of improvement are identified, put them into practice. This is the essence of refining a process.
In the Define stage, you create a process. In the Refine stage, you adjust the process to align the results with key metrics. By contrast, the Streamline stage is about addition by subtraction; improving efficiency by removing the redundant parts.
There are opportunities to do this both internally within the organization and externally. Internally, analyze the process sequence to see what is and isn’t truly necessary. It may take a few cycles, but as the process becomes routine there is usually opportunity to consolidate or remove the unnecessary. Another way to streamline internally is to examine the process environment. If a manufacturing floor is chaotic and disorganized, you can improve production efficiency by re-arranging the space to flow with the process.
Externally, there are many products available that will unlock more process efficiency. Upfront costs may be substantial, but these should be viewed as investments instead of losses if they lead to larger cost savings over time. For example, purchasing a centralized inventory tracking system for a retail business will lead to more accurate inventory data and less waste during restocking. Over time, the savings on reduced waste will “pay off” the cost of buying the system and generate a positive return.
This define/refine/streamline structure is broad. Very broad. And that’s on purpose; I’ve designed it as a framework to apply across industries, scenarios, and sectors. To be repeatable. When you get used to thinking about processes in this way, you can be more efficient during process development and improvement. And that’s what it’s all about!
As a final note, I’ve intentionally used the naming convention named this approach define / refine /streamline because it’s catchy and it rhymes; two essential elements for any piece of content to stick.