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Business Process Improvement

Some improvement ideas under the heading Working smarter - process structure

1. View the process through the eyes of the process customer

Whether the process customer is external or internal, consider how the customer sees the transactions with your process and make sure that you fully understand your customers’ requirements and expectations.

Make sure that these requirements / expectations have been conveyed to those stages of your process that need to know. The tool ‘quality function deployment’ can help with this task.

Make sure there is a robust approach to managing changes in your customers' requirements and that any changes are cascaded to all relevant stages of your process and supply chain.

Identify those stages where there is interaction with the customer and make sure that all interactions with the customer are working satisfactorily.

2. Next operation as customer

Consider two stages of the process at a time and think of the downstream stage as the customer to the upstream stage. Question what the upstream stage could do to improve the output (hardware, service or information) delivered to the downstream stage.

Remember that the output from one stage does not always become the input to the next stage, it can become the input for a subsequent stage.

3. Identify bottlenecks / constraints and investigate

Review the process from the furthest upstream point of the supply chain to the final downstream activity (delivery, commissioning or after sales service) and identify the primary constraint that is limiting the process from delivering more.

Traditionally this ‘more’ refers to volume of throughput and the constraint can be found at any of the process stages. For example it may well be the marketing stage, which is not bringing in sufficient customers. It may be with one of the suppliers to the process who is not delivering in accordance with the needs of the process. It may be the level of resources at one stage of the process, either in terms of machinery or plant capability or the numbers of personnel. There are an almost limitless number of possible causes for the process to be constrained.

Having examined the process in this way, the primary constraint and probably the next two most significant constraints will have been identified. Firstly review the forecast of the likely trend in the demand placed on the process over the foreseeable future. If demand is predicted to decline then it may be appropriate to review the other process stages to see if they are over resourced and reallocate surplus resources.

If on the other hand the demand is predicted to remain constant or rise there then follows the analysis of how to remove the primary constraint and the effect that removing this constraint will have on the next most significant constraints. Clearly little will be gained if significant resources are allocated to the primary constraint if the next most significant constraint limits the process to almost the same extent.

For further reading on this subject the delegate is referred to Theory of constraints, Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt. Goldratt develops this approach and sets out five steps that ensure that the process of removing the primary constraint remains focused.

4. Can we learn from good practice and share with the process team?

If we are using a team of people who all undertake the same task it is inevitable that they will all perform to a differing level of success. The same can be said when we are using different teams in different locations. There is an opportunity to measure the performance of individuals and determine why some are more successful than others. It may then be possible to share this best practice across different teams.

5. Can stage output be increased by a modest upgrading of hardware or software?

A significant up-grading of hardware (plant, equipment, etc) or software would come under the category of breakthrough improvements but there may be an opportunity to improve stages of the process by investing in a modest up-grade. If this is the case there may have to be a business case developed detailing the resources required and the return on investment over time to justify this type of improvement.

Review the resources at each stage of the process to ensure they are adequate. Question how can stage output might be increased by a modest upgrading of hardware, software or other resource.

For example upgrading or replacing current equipment/facilities/hardware/software or providing system access at a stage that would benefit.

6. Review stage assurances

Refer to our article on process definition for a detailed explanation of stage assurances which can be summarised as:

1. A specified stage competency for personnel undertaking the tasks

2. Specified stage training for personnel undertaking the tasks

3. A specific stage instruction for personnel undertaking the tasks

4. A requirement for stage personnel to carry out a self-check of their work

5. The use of calibrated equipment/automation at a stage

Question whether the current stage assurances are adequate to manage exposure to the risk of failing to produce the required quality of stage output. If not can risk be more appropriately managed by making them more robust.

Conversely question whether the stage assurances are too excessive for the risk of quality failure and, if so, can savings be made by reducing them.

6. Evaluate demand

Review the demand into the process and differentiate between value demand and failure demand. Value demand is the normal requests received from customers for products or services. Failure demand is requests from customers to correct defective service or products that have already been received or to respond to queries that could have been foreseen or provided for.

If a significant failure demand is detected then search for the root cause of the problem and correct it. There is usually an opportunity for a ‘quick win’ in a situation like this.

7. Is there a need to provide for variable demand?

Many industries work on a project by project basis with no guarantee of steady demand. Other sectors simply have fluctuations of demand during the year as a result of seasonal change, client budget calendars, school term times, public holidays, etc.

In situations like this can we make savings by having backup resources and flexibility within our process?

8. Ensure robust change control of process activities

Make sure that your process activities are subject to a robust change control procedure. Robust does not mean difficult to achieve change, quite the contrary change should be easy to request. It means that all change is properly assess not only for financial implications but also for its impact on 'throughput', quality, environmental and other risks and most importantly its impact on adjacent processes.

It is important that when we solve our problems with our process we do not simply pass on our problem to another part of our organisation.

9. Flow, can it be improved from entry, through stages, to exit?

Many processes, particularly manufacturing processes are built up over a period of time with stages being bolted on here and there. This means that there are usually significant gains to be made from reviewing how the flow physically takes place. For example, can double handling be eliminated? Can journey or handling times be reduced? Can inventory be shared or on the contrary does inventory need to be separated? Does the movement of inventory cross that of another process with the potential for error? Would it help us to measure cycle time and yield to support our improvement endeavours.

10. Does the IT system support the process flow?

Question whether the IT system supports the process flow or dictates it, providing a straight jacket that confines the process and restricts making efficiencies. Question whether the IT system creates waste by requiring information that is no longer being used or includes steps in the process that are no longer needed. Question whether the IT system actually slows the process down because the software has become extensively modified and is too complex to run on the current system architecture.

11. Can inventory be reduced?

Organisations can have significant capital tied up unnecessarily in inventory and any reductions will go straight to the bottom line. Local industry may not permit just-in-time inventory management but few organisations can boast that they carry no unnecessary inventory.

12. Are all stages throughout the process adding value?

In the manufacturing arena this may be combining two stages into one to make efficiencies. Or it may be that an activity is performed twice at different stages of the process.

Another example might be where a stage inspection has been introduced to mitigate a risk that once existed but no longer exists.

In the service arena frequently review and authorisation stages are introduced to satisfy some budget allocation need that may no longer exist.

13. Are any new stages needed?

For example to improve efficiency of process or quality and reliability of output or mitigate an identified risk. This may not necessarily be a new stage but may take the form of additional checks, inspections or reviews at existing stages.

14. Could efficiencies be made if stages were split into two?

For example a stage might it be divided into two and one part be allocated to a supplier or another department? One part might be done during the day shift the other during the night shift. One part might be done by highly qualified and skilled personnel, the other by unqualified or unskilled personnel.

15. Could efficiencies be made if the sequence of stages is changed?

The sequence of stages can be critical to the efficiency of the process and there may be efficiencies by undertaking a specific stage before a stage that has traditionally been carried out before the stage in question. Do not assume that because the sequence has been operating satisfactorily for years it cannot be improved by re-sequencing.

16. Ensure all essential requirements have been defined adequately

If something is required to be done then this requirement must be defined using clarity of instruction, specified competencies or training. Most personnel want to do what is required of them and many mistakes occur when personnel ‘think’ they are doing what is required but, because of a lack of clear definition they invent their own method of work.

17. Are all checks/tests at each stage adding value or conversely are they adequate?

This can apply to service or manufacturing processes. In service processes it may relate to checking data entry or the review of a report or the way a conference room has been set up. In a manufacturing process it may relate to an additional physical check or moving an existing check from one stage to another to reduce the risk of manufacturing defective product. Always question whether there is a need for self-checking or teams checking each others’ work?

18. Are all the resources at each stage are adding value and necessary or conversely are they adequate?

This may come to light from the review of bottlenecks but there may well be stages that do not appear to be a bottleneck but either have surplus resources or inadequate resources. Resources may be allocated on the basis of peak throughput and may only be fully utilised during a short period of the process production cycle. Can under utilised resources be used during downtime on other production? This question applies equally to human resources as to plant or equipment.

19. Question the effectiveness of process measures

Are they too many, too few and are they the most useful to determine process health? Check to determine whether all process measures are being reviewed and acted upon. Check if there is a single measure that the process owner uses to determine process health.

Ask what can be learnt from the process measures particularly in relation to opportunities to improve the process performance.

20. Always think ‘How can we improve, how can we deliver more for less?’

This axiom really refers to the culture of personnel operating the process and readers should also refer to the ideas on ‘the learning culture’ set out in some of the articles in the website Knowledge Bank.

Most importantly the management should always carry this axiom with them at informal meetings and should convey this message by setting an example to others in the way they operate.

21. Can any of the quality tools be employed?

There is a natural tendency for personnel to attend training in quality tools and techniques and when they return to the workplace fail to apply or see the application of some of the tools or techniques as solutions to their problems. There are some very useful quality tools such as error proofing, standardising operations, use of route cards, inspection and test plans, etc.