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The 6 great tips for improvement
Debashis Sarkar | February 16, 2006
Process improvements seldom happen by accident. Debashis Sarkar argues that a well thought out plan must incorporate the 'ACCEPT' principles.
Process improvements are an integral part of all quality programmes. Irrespective of the type of industry, all process improvements are touched by a few principles which are vital to their success. Ignoring any of these principles can be detrimental to the expected outcome of the improvement project and their subsequent sustenance.
Whether it is process improvements through Six Sigma, Lean S, TRIZ, TOC (Theory of Constraints) or any other methodology, these principles are universally applicable. I call it the 'ACCEPT principles for process improvements.'
1. Ability of the leader to ask the right questions
Ability of leaders to ask the right questions is critical to the success of a project. The type of questions will determine the quality of process improvements. If leaders do not know what to look for, teams would get the message that they can get away with whatever is possible.
The questions of a leader should be around 'why the problem occurred', 'what is the purpose and business case', 'what will take to accomplish', 'what are the data sources', 'how would it impact the customer, business and overall system' and 'who is accountable'.
It is imperative that leaders make an effort to understand the broad approach to improvement and the type of language being used by the Improvement specialist. This is the reason why Six Sigma methodology requires leaders to go through a Champion's Workshop or a session which gives the brief on Six Sigma, what to look for and what questions to ask.
2. Commit to the right metrics
A fallout of a successful process improvement is installation of metrics. A good process management should include an optimum balance of 'result metrics' and 'process metrics.' The result metrics measure the output quality while the process metrics help in predicting the process output.
The former acts a lead indicator while the latter acts as a lag indicator. The term 'process data' is a bit of a misnomer because all data are the consequence of some antecedent event. However, we refer to these data as they provide sufficiently early indicators such that we can adjust the process before the undesirable condition occurs.
Installation of process measurements should be in two stages. In the first stage of process improvement establish a system to measure the results (outputs) through result metrics. In the second stage add a system that enables proactive management of process outcomes through process metrics.
Remember, measurements should be targetted at improving the effective-ness, efficiency and adaptability of the process.
3. Communicate 'why are we doing what we are doing'
Do not launch an improvement programme without a purpose. Bereft of a purpose there is no framework for establishing priorities, aligning efforts or judging success. Much improvement process fails because the effort is squandered in improving unimportant processes.
Further, it is imperative that all people working in the process are made aware why has the process been taken up for improvement and how does it affect the larger picture. Often the involvement levels of process teams are not adequate because they have not been sensitized on the importance of the initiative and how it would impact the business and them.
It is the duty of leaders, improvement specialist and process owners to relentlessly communicate to all concerned the purpose of the improvement.
4. Ensure system level improvement
Organisations carry out a lot local process improvements without realising how they impact the entire system. It is imperative that we understand the concept of integration and alignment of processes and how it helps in achievement of overall objectives of the system.
The processes should be managed as a system and we need to understand the process networks and their interactions. The outputs from one process may be inputs to other processes and interlinked into the overall network or system. Carry out process improvements with the overall performance of the system in mind.
The worst thing to happen is that a process is optimized but the entire system turns sub-optimal. The effort of the organisation should be to inculcate in its employees to understand systems, lead systems, and think systemically. As Fuji Cho, President Toyota Motor Company, mentions in Jeffrey K. Liker's book The Toyota Way, 'The key to the Toyota Way and what makes Toyota stand out is not any of the individual elements. . . But what is important is having all the elements together as a system. It must be practiced every day in a very consistent manner - not in spurts.'
5. Promote organic growth of capabilities
There are no off-the-shelf approach to improvements. Effective process improvements take time and need to gradually seep deep and wide. Don't set unrealistic timelines as it may lead to bogus improvements without creating the desired capabilities to carry the initiative on an ongoing basis.
Be wary of consultants who are ready to carry out improvements on your behalf. Remember, they are your greatest enemy as they shall carry out improvements without leaving back competencies with the organisation.
Improvements carried out should be self-sustaining and this is possible when there is sufficient number of trained employees within the organisation. In the early days management push may work but in the long run sustenance requires motivated individuals who have the relevant competencies.
The competency development should be in the following areas:
Just not teams but 'effective teams' are required for process improvements. Teams are the engines that deliver successful process improvements. It is the duty of management to ensure that right teams are put in place and that they are effective.
While there are many traits, the five key characteristics of an effective team for process improvements are:
Debashis Sarkar is Deputy General Manager, Organisational Excellence Group, ICICI Bank.
Published with the kind permission of The Smart Manager, India's first world class management magazine, available bi-monthly.