Four Essential Ingredients for Successful Process Improvement

Anne Ponton

Coach me if you can!

Have you ever dreamt of a checklist that would give you a 95% confidence that your process improvement project is going to be successful? A kind of "Poke Yoke" (mistake proof) execution process? The solution is making process improvement a process in itself, writes contributor Anne Ponton. Here are the four essential ingredients you need to get started.

We hear many different reasons why process improvement projects fail: lack of stakeholder buy in, failure to identify the right processes to improve, and resistance to change are among the most oft-cited. I think the way to help counteract all of these problems is quite simple: make process improvement a process itself.

If we approached our Process Excellence projects or programmes as a process, everyone would agree its performance could be improved and its variations reduced. So what would this look like?

Let’s visualize the execution of any process improvement initiative as a process: if you bring in the inputs, and control the process improvement process all along, you will get the expected outputs and will create value to your customers without a doubt. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could design a process that would allow change managers to execute their projects with 95% confidence they will succeed?

As we all know, designing a process means, in essence, to define the Suppliers, the Inputs, the main Process steps and flow, the expected Outputs, and the Customers.

Suppliers and Customers are naturally whoever is on-boarded into the change management journey: Green and Black Belts, Master Black Belts, Sponsors, Process Owners, stakeholders in general. Everyone should bring something to the process improvement process, and gain something from it, be it a soft or a hard gain.

With regards to the inputs from where everything starts, let me introduce here four cornerstones as the key ingredients necessary to properly frame any process improvement project:

#1: Getting buy-in and commitment:

The first cornerstone is ensuring that you’ve got the right people involved and actively engaged with the process improvement, as this guarantees that the specific project contributes to a broader strategic objective. Whoever is directly involved in the process improvement process should be genuinely willing to make it a success.

The converse is also true: those who are not committed to the process improvement process should not be part of it. If some people resist to change, they should not be simply left aside: their reasons to resist must be heard and understood, which will encourage such opponents to re-align their own vision to the strategic objective by themselves And people really refusing to align to strategic objectives will naturally go away. People often struggle to get buy in and I think that often the problem is the lack of a clearly defined problem, which is my second key ingredient for a successful PI project:

#2: Start with the problem, not the solution

The second cornerstone is to start with a problem rather than a known solution or - even worse-starting from the intention to develop a specific solution. The problem should be painful enough for the Sponsor to really care about getting it fixed.

#3: Make sure the problem is process-related

The third cornerstone lies in linking the problem you’ve identified to the process. . As obvious as this may sound, if the problem does not come from the process, process improvement is unlikely going to bring any relevant answer. So many so-called "process improvement projects" target to patch infrastructure deficiencies instead of leveraging the infrastructure to manage the processes and the business. As much as we’d like to believe it can, Business Process Management cannot provide answers to every problem encountered by a business. We should know when to step away because it’s not a process-related problem.

#4: Define your objectives, in terms as simple as possible

The last cornerstone is to define adapted objectives: the ultimate objectives are most likely to create value to customers, and/or to reduce processing costs. But could such objectives be articulated into a simple definition that lay the foundation of the success of the change initiatives? How could you break down a complex problem into a list of two to four specific and measurable key success factors? With simple and achievable goals identified, you are set to start with a clear end in mind, which tremendously helps to frame your success story.

On top of these four cornerstones, Positive Energy is an important key input required to nurture success. Is everyone enthusiastic and passionate to change? If not, can at least one be found, in charge of contaminating all the other Suppliers and Customers with Positive Energy, enthusiasm, passion to improve the processes? Passion to improve is very infectious, be sure to find someone to bring such a key input, critical to overcome the biggest challenges.

Read more ideas in Anne Ponton’s new book Lean Six Sigma: Coach me if you can, a practical step-by-step guide to coaching future process improvement leaders and overcoming the common challenges of process improvement. The book is available now on Amazon.