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Best Practices

How to Build Process Improvement into your Organization's DNA


Ever heard of The Toyota Way? Its a set of principles outlining Toyota’s approach to Continuous Improvement (CI) and a model for other organizations who strive for operational efficiency. The 14-part Manifesto focuses on two key areas: people and process. People will not thrive without a company culture based on respect and processes will ossify without continuous improvement. CI adheres to a variety of philosophies and approaches all of which circle back to these two core elements, people and process.

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Process Improvement (PI) lives within the context of CI, both essential to the other. In order to deeply engrain process improvement into the heart of your organization, one must first understand the elements of CI and its roadblocks in order to plan a path to process improvement success.

Understanding the Elements of CI

Organizations need a map of the past in order to create a map for the future and impact the present. CI can be viewed on a time spectrum of the future (strategic planning/roadmap), past (process improvement) and present (hygiene /maintenance).

Strategic planning is an important part of CI that gives the organization direction. It may not answer immediate questions of the everyday, but gives leaders a shared vision to strive towards. Process improvement aims to fix the problems of the past. An early step of process improvement is Process Discovery — a fact-based view of what has happened, also known as the ‘as is’ process. Process footprints left in IT systems are the tiny pieces that create this historical map. The third “present moment” element of CI is prevention or continuous maintenance. This daily hygiene, if you will, may be actions taken to strengthen a process weaknesses or exploit process opportunities discovered by process mining.

Know Thy Enemy: Roadblocks to CI

As industries advanced and the factory line grew from a few dozen close-knit co-workers to hundreds or hundreds of thousands of employees around the globe, companies increasingly needed to rely on a shared fictitious story — the shared story of company culture. It is this shared understanding of company culture that connects employees, largely strangers, and makes continuous improvement possible. Trust in the company begets trust in the process.

However, the story of company culture is under constant strain due to several factors of the modern day workplace. In the past decades, specifically during the rise of the information age and ‘product as a service’, employees have shifted away from manual work to knowledge work. This requires ad hoc decision making, creative thinking and constant changes to the status quo. Ad hoc work opens the door to a variety of outcomes, making process improvement a hard fly to catch. Furthermore, this ad hoc work is performed by employees working under various employment structures.

The changing workforce of part-time employees, shift workers, freelancers, contractors, outsourced teams and full-time employees pokes holes in the story of company culture. The smooth transfer of knowledge, documents, culture, and accountability all contribute to the effective implementation of CI, which become harder under this new work model. Workplace flexibility may be a requirement of the modern workforce, with a multitude of benefits, but it also creates a weak point for a CI culture.

In addition to the challenges presented by a changing workforce, big data brings with it significant challenges for CI. Continuous improvement relies on information; what gets measured gets managed. However, in an environment of big data deciding what to measure and manage can be overwhelming. In a similar manner to workplace flexibility, big data brings challenges along with opportunities. Which tools deserve investment? Which data sources to exploit? The vastness of big data makes continuous improvement daunting.

The Path to Continuous Process Improvement

In order to overcome these roadblocks and effectively build process improvement into the organization’s DNA, the following ideas need be applied:

Start with a culture of CI

Creating a culture of continuous improvement is a field of study unto itself. The Toyota Way emphasizes a culture of mutual respect. Leading with the core principle of respect — respect for others, respect for partners, respect for self — a culture of continuous improvement consists of persistent leadership (lead by example), strong change management, shared love for data (evidence-based culture) and doing fewer things better.

Let data do the talking

Processes are improved more so by factual evidence and less so by gut feelings. While experienced knowledge workers play a part in process refinement, process improvement should primarily rely on empirical evidence. If an organization is centered around data, processes will be better positioned to improve based on facts, rather than personal whims.

Fixed & ad hoc process checks

Set up a system for process maintenance. A regularly managed process is a healthy one that builds team trust. Knowing that a process is continuously being refined and checked enables others down the ad hoc chain to do their part. Continuous process improvement finds its way into an organization's DNA when it becomes part of everyday activities. Talk about process checks and weave it into everyday office banter.

Tolerate half-baked ideas

Sound like a bad idea to encourage bad ideas? If we stop here, yes, it is a bad idea, but the principle is not. Create an environment that tolerates half-baked ideas, perceiving them as a springboard rather than the be-all, end-all of the conversation. One person’s brainstorm is another's inspiration, and yet another’s moment of brilliance. As mentioned before, analytics and process discovery must rely on data, but process refinement and roadmapping relies on human innovation. By allowing half-baked ideas to be freely spoken, the next great process improvement idea may be born.

Small improvements can have big results

And finally, off the back of half-baked ideas, have faith in small, incremental improvements. Sometimes a tiny process fix can lead to big results. Success is rarely achieved in one fell swoop, but rather occurs as a succession of small feats. As small improvements are championed and praised process improvement cements its way into the mindset of employees. Start small, stay consistent and build process improvement into your organization's DNA one step at a time.

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Michal Rosik

04. 10. 2018