Best approach to implementing improvements

What’s the best way of improving something in your business?  This is one of the most common questions that we come across when working with clients.

With over thirty years of experience working on improvement projects, I have seen a lot of different approaches but there are a few common elements in all successful improvement projects.

In this blog post, I will highlight those elements.

Identify an opportunity

Firstly, there should be a process to identify candidate improvement projects and rank those.  This can be part of your regular management meeting.  Suggestions can come from reviewing your KPIs and identifying ones that need improvement.  They can also come from customer feedback or suggestions can come from employees working on the process.

You may have a number of opportunities and you may be need to decide which is the most important.  The most common way of ranking is to quantify the impact of the problem and then quantify the perceived difficulty of developing the improvement.

Sometimes, the impact is so great, that its clear this problem just has to be fixed.   Other times, it’s clear that while the problem is of medium impact the solution is relatively easy and it becomes a no-brainer to select it as a suitable project.

Don’t have too many improvement projects on the go at the one time.

Define the Problem

When we get to the other side, when we have the project completed, we will need a way of determining if it was successful.  The best way to do that is to start by clearly defining the problem.

Let’s say, we own a pub and that customers have been complaining that it takes too long to get served.  We could easily say that the problem is “time to be served” and that the measurement is the time taken to get served.

But that is vague.  We need to be clear on what we are measuring.  When do we start measuring time and when do we stop measuring time.  We could say that we start once the order is called and we finish when the customer leaves the bar to take the order back to his/her table.

However, the customer could have been standing at the bar for 5 minutes trying to get his/her order in.  If I was a customer out in a pub with friends having fun, I would not want to be away from my group of friends, missing the fun, for too long.  I feel the time should start when I leave the table and end when I return to the table with drinks.

So you can see, that simply saying measure the time is not enough.  You need to be clear on what you are measuring.  And when deciding that, try to include the view of the customer as it’s the most important viewpoint.

Who to involve in the improvement project

When working on an improvement project, there are a few categories of people who should be involved.

You need to bring insights from the customer to the project.  Most times, you will not be able to involve the customer directly but there should be someone involved who has access to customer insights.  This could be a customer facing employee who regularly gets direct feedback from the customer.

Secondly, we need to have someone on the team who is working in the process and has a good understanding of what is going on in the process.  They will usually have the best idea of what is really happening in the process.

Finally, you need someone with a good understanding of improvement approaches who can keep the project from getting pulled into detail or onto red herrings.

Depending on the business you are in and the project you are working on, you may need to have someone from quality or finance or you may need to have someone who works with suppliers.  When picking the team consider the wider picture.

Understand what is really happening in the process.

The next step is to get clear on what is really happening.  To do this, we usually draw up a process map and take measurements at various points in the process.   We need to be clear on the start and end of the process, the various steps in the process, the inputs and the outputs of the process.  From that information, we can identify key measures to give insight on what is happening.

Sometimes, it’s clear that the process is very poorly defined and there is a lack of consistency in how different people approach their jobs.  That alone may be the problem

Identify Root Causes of the Problem

Once you understand that process and what is happening, the team can start to brainstorm possible causes of the problems. When you have a thorough list of those causes, it should be possible to evaluate each possible cause and from that come up with a theory on what the root cause(s) is/are.

When doing this, you need to be rigorous and make decisions based on facts and not just suspicion.  For example, if in a fish processing factory, someone proposes that the size of purchased fish is inconsistent, then we need to gather data to check if that is actually the case.  We might take a reasonable number of samples from batches of fish bought and measure these to see if they are of a suitably consistent size.

At the end of this step, we would expect to have identified one or more key root causes to work on.

Identify the Improvement Solutions

Once we have a root cause, we want to determine solutions to address the root cause.  The solution may be obvious or it may require some creative thinking.

For example, in a payroll process, where there were problems calculating overtime, the complexity of the rules was identified as the root problem.

The solution was to simplify the rules and make it easier for the payroll processor to determine the rate to be applied.  Because few people understood the rules, it was fairly easy to get agreement on simplifying that.  Employees liked the idea, supervisors liked the idea the payroll processor liked the idea.

Test the Improvement Solution

What we don’t want to happen is to replace one problem with another, so before we roll out a solution, we need to be sure that it works and that it doesn’t cause problems somewhere else.

The best way to do this is to run tests, firstly, and then, if we can, to implement the solution on a pilot basis.  In the payroll problem, we could run it for a single department or maybe for a single shift.   We needed to get permission from the people affected but that was forthcoming because everyone wanted to see it fixed.

Once we run the Pilot and evaluate the results, we can then decide if we want to implement the solution on a wider basis or if, instead, we have to go back to the drawing board.

Implementing the solution

When implementing the solution, we need to make sure the implementation goes well.

Firstly, we should document the changes and communicate the changes to everyone.  The level and detail of this communication will depend on the scale and complexity of the change.

We then need to be sure that everyone impacted is aware of the change that is about to be implemented.

Finally, we need to put measures in place that will give us feedback on whether, or not, the change is having the desired effect.  In our payroll example, we could have measured either the number of overtime queries or alternatively the number of overtime amendments.  Because the issue had been the level of confusion, we opted to go with the level of queries.

Monitor the process post change implementation

It’s good practice to monitor the process for a reasonable period after implementing a change.   This is just to make sure that the change worked as expected and, also, to make sure that bad habits don’t slip back into the process.

Normally, the KPIs for the process get added to the overall KPIs that are measured and these new KPIs are kept there for as long as management deem necessary.

Next Improvement Project

Good companies adopt an attitude of continuous improvement.  This means that they are constantly striving to get better and better.

Once a problem has been fixed, the continuously improving company will not rest on its laurels but will look for another improvement opportunity.

To do that, you go back to your original list of candidate projects and check if there is something else that should be worked on.  The next project may be something from that list or it may be a completely new opportunity that has just cropped up.

In any event, the improvement cycle will start again and you will work through the same steps – identify the opportunity, define the process, understand the process, identify root causes, develop possible solutions, test solutions, implement and monitor.

How much detail is necessary

You may be thinking that this all seems very complicated.  Some companies, when they see something wrong, just fix immediately and don’t go through what they feel is an unnecessarily complex process.

Sometimes that will work but more often it just makes things worse.

With simple problems, you can work through the steps very quickly.  With more complex issues, you need to take time to make sure that the solution is not going to create problems for someone else.   It’s always a good idea to work through this type of an approach.

Do you have problems in your business that are impacting on growth or profits?  I hope you found this guide to a methodical approach helpful and I wish you every success in applying it.  If you have any questions or comments, feel free to contact me at 086 2323525 or by email at jim (at) accountsplus (dot) .ie.

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