Written by: Leigh Perkins // Mar 27, 2020
Last updated: Aug 21, 2020
When American business titan Jack Welch died March 1, 2020, it signaled a milestone moment to reevaluate the innovations that earned Welch Fortune magazine’s “Manager of the Century” title. Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be his early adoption of Lean Six Sigma Principles. If you’re ready to learn more about titan-worthy streamlining methods that you can apply to your own enterprise, explore three process improvement techniques to boost work efficiency and produce real results where you work.
Welch Was a Convincing Advocate for Process Improvement
As CEO and chairman of GE until his retirement in 2001, Welch stood upon an influential platform, and he used it. He became famous for GE’s results, but also for his groundbreaking, unapologetic demand for quality control and strategic thinking. In time, more than half of Fortune 500 companies followed Welch’s lead, implementing Lean Six Sigma methods across industries and training their employees to follow suit.
Particularly important to Welch and his admirers were uncluttering and simplifying processes. At GE, Welch believed adapting to change required the company to create an environment “free of bureaucratic logjams, so that it is easy for anyone in the organization with a good idea to communicate to anyone else.”
These are good goals for your workplace, too, so let’s consider how three process improvement techniques – mapping, analyzing, and redesigning – can boost efficiency, productivity, and the customer experience. And in the process of improving processes, you just might find that you’ve unclogged the bottlenecks that prevent you and your team from feeling a sense of, as Welch put it, “contribution and reward.”
Mapping: The Documenting Phase
You are clear about which process at work you want to improve. Not so clear is where it goes off the rails. Start your process improvement by mapping every step, in detail, so that you are clear about every player, every paper, every procedure, every stage of the process.
Before looking at how Lean Six Sigma tackles mapping, let’s consider why it’s done at all. Conceptually, there are two kinds of processes, the formal and the informal. The formal processes are vetted, recorded, shared, adhered to, and accomplished through well-documented steps. All good.
Then there are the informal processes, the individual workarounds, temporary circumventions, and personal “way of doing things” that sneak into your operation and over time can break down the formal processes. We all want to get to solutions as quickly as possible, but getting there by detour can be problematic. It can add steps and stops to your workflow. It can involve more employees and resources than necessary. It can mean a single person has the password to a system everyone needs. What happens when they’re on holiday? Exceptions and blips are to blame for roadblocks. That’s why you need to map them out, even if they don’t technically exist in your official playbook. They’re there, promise.
Mapping your process is kind of like creating a visual audit of how things are being done. In Lean, this is referred to as value stream mapping. There are variants, of course, such as SIPOC and UML; which flavor of flowchart you choose is up to your organization’s needs and your particular process challenge.
Before you get down to it, ask for input from leadership and colleagues so you know your goals and can accurately collect the data required. Welch had no patience, as he said, for bureaucratic logjams, and you shouldn’t either. Be inclusive. Everyone involved in the process should be involved in improving the process.
No matter the template you choose, there are five basic boxes you need to tick off as you perform cartography duties for your company’s process.
- Scope: Determine start and endpoints. It could be your entire supply chain; it could be a stand-alone project in a single business unit.
- Steps: This is where you document your formal processes and the workarounds.
- Inventory/wait times: This could be anything from transportation time from suppliers to how long a customer has to wait for a manicure.
- Information flow: Indicate lines of communication and flow of responsibility.
- Timeline: Essential as you evaluate waste in your process. “Timekeeping” could relate to a three-minute customer service response or to a year in the life of a major construction project.
Identifying where workarounds are occurring, when they’re being triggered, and where the timeline is suffering will help you improve your overall process. Mapping where and when it happens allows you to focus on the why during your discovery phase, our next step.
Analyzing: The Discovery Phase
Flowchart in hand, you now have the tools to investigate your processes. In business process improvement methodology, one approach to finding root causes and bottlenecks is the 5 Whys. It’s basically applying the question “Why?” relentlessly (or at least five times) until you unearth the real reasons your process has problems.
Here are wordier questions to ask, too:
- Where does the process get frustrating for clients or employees?
- Where are the bottlenecks?
- What steps are affecting costs and/or quality?
- Where are the delays?
- Are there duplications of effort?
Examine the map carefully with your team. Flag sequences that share a high portion of similarities – this is where inefficiencies hide – and the outliers, workarounds, and tie-ups to determine why your process is not making the most of your organization’s time, talent, resources, and/or budget.
Sometimes, the current map makes its secrets known only when compared against the ideal, which is the future state map created in the next step.
Redesigning: The Improvement Phase
The beauty of a future state map: It usually confirms that you really don’t need to reengineer your whole operation. Often, a simple fix or an incremental process change can right the ship.
Just as you involved your team in creating the value stream map, it’s a good idea to brainstorm with the people directly involved in the process you’re planning to tweak. They’ll have great ideas. And finding solutions injects some of Welch’s “contribution and reward” that results from an uncluttered, efficient process.
This is also the phase when you will conduct more formal assessments of your two maps, the current and the future. Depending on your organization’s focus, you could choose one of these analytical processes:
Where does this examination lead? You will arrive at a redesign of your process, clarifying roles and breaking down the new way of working into a number of phases, plotted against a timeline. Your metrics will be specific to your organization or project, and you may need to create a series of intermediate future state maps, depending on the complexity of your efficiency issues. But, with the approval of all stakeholders and a plan in hand, you’re ready to implement a more efficient process.
At the risk of allowing an informal procedure to creep into a formal process, tuck a final mini-step in here: monitoring. Make sure your solutions are working and haven’t resulted in any unforeseen consequences.
No matter whether your goal is to become a titan of industry like Jack Welch or simply to work the kinks out of your operation’s workflow, USF’s Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education has the process improvement program for you. And, appropriately, earning your certification is an efficient process. You can become a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt or Black Belt in just 10 Saturdays.