What Is Process Improvement in Business, and How Can It Help?

Last updated: Aug 25, 2020

“If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” That’s attributed to Albert Einstein, arguably the world’s greatest physicist to date and inarguably a genius who clearly had the mindset of a process improvement manager. Fortunately, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what process improvement managers do for businesses, which brings us to the questions du jour: What is process improvement in business, and how can it help?

 

What Is Process Improvement in Business?

CIO, a digital magazine, gives a clear, succinct definition of process improvement in business: “Process improvement involves the business practice of identifying, analyzing and improving existing business processes to optimize performance, meet best practice standards or simply improve quality and the user experience for customers and end-users.”

 

CIO goes on to give a few process improvement aliases:

  • Business process management
  • Business process improvement
  • Business process re-engineering
  • Continual improvement process

 

That leaves two boxes to check off. What does process improvement do, and how does it do it?

 

Business plan with graphs representing process improvement in business.

What Does Process Improvement Do?

Let’s stick with CIO for a concise answer: The digital magazine notes that regardless of what you call the process, the goal is “to minimize errors, reduce waste, improve productivity and streamline efficiency.” In essence, regardless of your widget or service, process improvement managers try to help you make it better, satisfying customers and boosting your bottom line.

 

The Process Excellence Network gives seven high-profile examples of process improvement excellence and evolution. Here are four of them:

 

Henry Ford’s development of the auto manufacturing assembly line “paved the way for modern manufacturing and a new kind of thinking about process.”

Bell Laboratories’ push to make its telephony transmission systems more reliable yielded groundbreaking technology and the groundwork for statistical process control and Six Sigma. Walter A. Shewhart, a physicist, engineer, and statistician, was part of the process. He is remembered as the father of statistical quality control and the genesis of the process control chart, the Shewhart cycle.

Toyota Motor Corp. gave us the Toyota Production System, which is the original just-in-time methodology. The defining philosophy is called The Toyota Way, “a deeply entrenched cultural and management philosophy that focuses on continuously improving the way work is carried out, looking for faults in the system/process.”

Motorola set out to improve its products and invented Six Sigma to get it done. Its engineers at Motorola laboratories invented Six Sigma, a statistics-driven continuous process control and improvement methodology. Enter the Six Sigma brand and certification levels designated by “belts,” yellow, green, black, and master black belt.

 

How Can Process Improvement Help?

Process improvement can help by (A) identifying problems in your widget process, or even the widget itself, and correcting them to (Z) keep customers happy. The important “how” here is how to get from A to Z. A website for HEFLO, a cloud-based business management optimization software, explains how BPI helps businesses through “selection, analysis, design, and implementation of the (improved) process.”

 

HEFLO lays that out as a four-step effort:

  1. Analyze the process you want to improve until you fully understand it and can map it. “Talking to the people involved in the project is crucial. There’s no one better to tell you exactly where the difficulties lie than those who work day-to-day with the process.”
  2. Define necessary improvements to the process, then engage your creativity to model the improved version. These questions can guide you:
    • The process has a purpose. What is it?
    • Is it being done efficiently – free of redundancy?
    • Why, where, and what are the issues/problems affecting the process outcome?
    • Are the problematic tasks necessary, and if so, why?
    • Where, by whom, and with what elevated degree of automation should it be done?
    • What are the problems and how can they be eliminated?
    • Is there waste in the process; and if so, how can it be removed?
    • What are your benchmark standards?
    • What’s the best way to monitor the process and guarantee you hit your performance goals?
  3. Get your improvements online.
  4. It’s go time. Get your improved widget production system rolling again, and closely monitor the outcome.

 

This is where you go continuous in the application of principles of process improvement.

  • Ensure that what has been done meets with customer/end-user approval. This is the moment of truth.
  • Verify that what has been done adds value.
  • Simplify or eliminate activities/elements of the process that jeopardize the outcome. HEFLO says “more appropriate technology is often the solution to this situation.”
  • In the redesign and automation process, “replacement of human activities is not always the solution that will get the desired improvement to achieve the objectives of that process.”
  • Standardization of processes creates efficiency; therefore, “when designing process improvements, it’s important to standardize them, wherever possible, into reusable components, bringing management agility into the company, in addition to facilitating the integration of processes.”

 

Employees brainstorming ways to improve processes in their business.

Business Improvement Methodologies and Tools

There are myriad process improvement methodologies and exponentially more hybrids that spring from them. Among the methodologies are:

  • Poka-Yoke
  • Process Excellence
  • Six Sigma
  • Lean Six Sigma
  • Total Quality Management
  • Just-in-Time
  • Hoshin Planning
  • Design of Experiments
  • Lean Management
  • Agile Management
  • Re-engineering
  • Kaizen
  • Lean

 

Lean and Six Sigma are two of the most popular, yielding a lot of hybrids, and Agile has a lot of adherents, too.

 

It’s easy to get mired in rhetoric when you’re speaking in business jargon. One person’s methodology is another process improvement manager’s idea of a tool. Think Poka-Yoke. Here, though, are tools found in the Lean, Six Sigma, and Lean Six Sigma toolboxes.

 

Lean Tools

  • PDSA (This is an improvement cycle. It stands for plan, do, study, act.)
  • Value stream maps (These are process diagrams that track the flow of value to customers.)
  • 5S (They are sort [remove unnecessary material], set in order [arrange materials so they’re accessible], shine [tidy the workspace], standardize [make the first three S’s a routine], and sustain [audit regularly].)
  • Gemba (This is a philosophy stressing the value of spending time where the widgets are made.)
  • DMAIC (See Six Sigma tools.)

 

Six Sigma Tools

  • DMAIC (This stands for define, measure, analyze, improve, and control process.)
  • Value-stream mapping (See Lean Six Sigma tools.)
  • Cause-and-effect analysis (A technique used to identify all possible causes of a problem.)
  • 5 Whys (See Lean Six Sigma tools.)
  • Kanban (See tip No. 5 about Customer Satisfaction.)
  • 5S (See Lean tools.)

 

Lean Six Sigma Tools

  • Process Flow Charts (This is a visual aid showing steps/stages of a process.)
  • Value stream maps (See Lean tools.)
  • 5 Whys analysis (See tip No. 2 about Corporate Culture.)
  • Fishbone diagram (This is a way to visualize the causes of a problem.)
  • 5S (See Lean tools.)
  • Kanban (A graphic scheduling system.)
  • Poka-Yoke (This is a mistake prevention strategy that often is labeled a methodology.)
  • Kanban (See tip No. 5 about Customer Satisfaction.)
  • DMAIC (See Six Sigma tools.)

 

This section isn’t intended to offer an in-depth understanding of PI methodologies and tools. It’s a verbal Venn diagram showing the overlap you can expect in process improvement strategies and techniques/tools.

 

To go granular, your best bet is to pursue courses and certification programs such as those offered by USF’s Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education. They are tailored to mesh with the needs and schedules of working professionals.

 

For a deep dive, connect with one of our program advisors. For general inquiries, email us at CE-Inquiries@usf.edu or call us at 813-97-0950.

 

Learn More