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The best approach to implementing improvement projects

What’s the best way of implementing improvement projects?  This is one of the most common questions that I come across when working with clients.

Let me start by stating that I have over thirty years of experience working on improvement projects. Through this period I have seen a lot of different approaches but there are 10 common elements in all successful business improvement projects.

In this blog post, I will highlight those elements.

1. Identify an opportunity candidate for improvement projects

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 therefore need to decide which is the most important.  The most common way of ranking is to quantify the impact of the problem. Then quantify the perceived difficulty of developing the improvement.

Sometimes, the impact is so great, that it’s clear the problem has to be fixed.  Other times the problem is of medium impact but the solution is relatively simple. In this case, it becomes a no-brainer to select it as a suitable project.

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

2. Define the Problem in Improvement Project

When you complete the improvement project you will need a away of determining whether it was successful or not.  The best way to do this is by first clearly defining the problem.

For example, say you own a pub and customers start complaining that it takes too long to get served. In this case we need to be clear about what we are measuring.  When do we start and stop measuring time?  We could say that we start once the order is called and 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. Therefore its true the time should start when the client leaves the table and end when they 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. This same concept should be applied when defining problems. You should be able to identify it and pin point the root of the issue. Its is important to put yourself in customer perspective when defining the problem.

3. 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 directly involve the customer but you should be able to  involve someone 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. They will usually have the best idea of what is really happening.

Finally, you need someone with a good understanding of improvement approaches. Thay 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.

4. Understand what is really happening in the process.

The next step is to get a clear picture 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.  Using that information, we can identify key measures to give insight into what is happening.

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

5. Identify Root Cause of the Problem

Once you understand the process and what is happening, the team can start to brainstorm possible causes of the problems. Eventually when you make 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 you need to gather data to check if that is actually the case. You 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, you would expect to have identified one or more key root causes to work on.

6. Identify the Improvement Project Solutions

Once you have a root cause, you 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 over time, 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.

7. Test the Improvement Project Solution

What you don’t want to happen is to replace one problem with another, so before you roll out a solution, you 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 you can, to implement the solution on a pilot basis.  In the payroll problem, you could run it for a single department or maybe for a single shift.   You needed to get permission from the people affected but that was forthcoming because everyone wanted to see it fixed.

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

8. Implementing the solution

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

Firstly, you 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.

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

Finally, you need to put measures in place that will give feedback on whether, or not, the change is having the desired effect.  In the payroll example, you 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, you opted to go with the level of queries.

9. Monitor the Improvement Project post-change

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 gets added to the overall KPIs that are measured and these new KPIs are kept there for as long as management deems necessary.

10. 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 maybe 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 approach.

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