How many times have you solved a business problem or fixed a process only to find that the problem or process failure comes back to haunt you six months later?
I call it the Whac-A-Mole Effect (like the arcade game of that name), where you “whack down” one problem (mole), go on to the next problem, whack it down, and then see the prior “mole” pop up again.
I used to say about the company I worked for that, “We are great at solving problems, since we’re always solving the same ones over and over again.” If this sounds like your company, I think I can help you solve your problem-solving problem.
Make It Real
To permanently improve operational efficiency and effectiveness, you need to consider several important aspects of process improvement, as follows:
• Involve the actual workers. When I helped design a continuous improvement methodology for my former employer (a well-known production builder), the foundation of that system was to engage the people “on the front lines” who actually do the work. That’s the only way to truly identify the best ways to solve problems, as those front-line workers are most qualified to articulate why the process isn’t working and to suggest how to make it work better.
Don’t allow your managers (or yourself) to shuffle off to the conference room to solve the problem before asking the people who work in the process what they would do differently.
• Understand the root causes. You need to figure out if the process is actually broken or if it’s a good process that’s simply not being followed ... and, if so, why employees aren’t following the process as designed. Do you fully understand why the process is failing, and how often?
Before discussing possible solutions, be sure you fully expose and understand the root causes behind the problems, using facts and data, in addition to anecdotal insights, otherwise you’re just lunging at solutions from opinions, not facts. And, in my experience, managers tend to be the biggest lungers.
Make It Methodical
Effective process improvement requires following a clear, disciplined methodology, with the following steps:
• Define the scope of the process. Determining where the process begins and ends mitigates the chances that those charged with improving it lose focus and find themselves trying to fix too much.
A well-defined scope helps maintain focus and direction and avoid tangents that waste time and energy.
• Identify those involved. Who are the “customers” or end users of the process? Who (or what) provides input? What hand-offs occur within the process?
You’ll find that most employees don’t fully know the next person in line in a process or what they need from them (or it). To make a process work properly, participants must know the internal customers of a process and what they need.
• Map the process. To better understand the activities of a process, map it. Using flow diagrams and other tools helps employees understand how the entire process works. Determine what, exactly, happens in the process. Document each step. Describe expected outcomes.
• Identify process failures. It’s critical to find out what’s consistently going wrong and how often and to clearly identify the factors that contribute to those failures.
In our business, most of our processes involve the use of information passed along from one department or team to another. You need to know if the process suffers from lack of timeliness, lack of complete information, inaccurate information, bottlenecks, or some other factor—or a combination of factors—and whether the process meets the needs of those involved.
Facts and data—discovered by tracking the process steps—will provide the clues to a solution.
• Evaluate possible solutions. This is where the people who actually do the work are the most qualified to devise implementable solutions that: reduce errors and rework; will be easiest to implement, train for, and monitor; and will be the most predictable, repeatable, and reliable.
Once the people who work in the process agree on the most viable solution, they’ll be much more likely to fully embrace and adopt the change, instead of wondering how in the world their managers came up with this particular cockeyed “solution.”
Make It Stick
Implementing change is a process in and of itself, requiring training, documentation, oversight, monitoring, and measurement.
When instituting change, create a plan to make the change permanent. (Hint: Sending an “Effective Immediately” memo from the main office isn’t an effective way to implement change.)
Here are ways to ensure that implementation of new processes sticks:
• Document the process. Many new or modified processes fail because they aren’t properly documented.
For new employees, in particular, a well-defined and documented process is critical to ensuring that procedures are followed, even when staff changes occur; otherwise new hires may learn how to do their work according to a tribal understanding of how the process works, such as from a co-worker telling them, “The procedure says to do it this way, but this is how I do it. It works better.”
• Establish a monitoring mechanism. To ensure accountability, the adage “Inspect what you expect” applies here. If you want a modified or improved process to become embedded in how work gets done, a monitoring and auditing protocol further helps ensure that employees are following the new procedures.
• Measure the process. When implementing new processes, you need to measure timeliness, accuracy, completeness, and outcomes to prove that the improvements you expected actually occur.
Otherwise employees will soon tire of supposed improvements that don’t actually make their work easier, more productive, and less error-prone.
They’ll also become frustrated by a constant stream of so-called solutions, new tools, and other initiatives that burst out of the gate (often from on high) only to ultimately flame out because they lacked true insight, collaboration, or the commitment and follow-through to actually make a positive, lasting impact.
Once you’ve taken these steps, you can celebrate success in making real and measurable improvements. Share successes with your team, recognize them for their efforts to improve operations, and move on to the next opportunity, which your team will more likely embrace because they see the improvement process working ... and sticking.
The more methodical, fact-based, and employee-driven your process improvement efforts are, the more likely the mole will stay whacked and you can focus on working on the business rather than in it.
Access a PDF of this article in Pro Builder's September/October 2020 digital edition