Planning Process Improvement Project Strategy

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James Lewis

One of the missing elements of most process improvement project planning is attention to the strategy you will employ to do the job. We all know about implementation planning. That is determining exactly how the work will be done. However, we often fall back on doing our work the same way we have always done it, without asking a fundamental question: "Isn’t there a better way?"

Finding a Better Process Improvement Strategy

There is a tendency to solve process improvement problems using a more-of-the-same response. So if sales are down, you advertise more, have the sales people make more calls, reduce the price of your goods, or whatever you have found to work in the past. It sometimes works, but in the current recession, many of the strategies that have worked in good times no longer get results.

I heard of a luxury car dealer who responded to the recession by saying, "We’ve heard there’s a recession, but we’ve decided not to participate." So, rather than do the usual things to try to bring potential buyers into their showroom, they asked a new question: "If the customers won’t come to us, how can we present our cars to them?" Following that question, they asked where those customers might be located and realized that some of the people who could afford their cars were members of the local country club. So they began taking cars to the club and offering no-obligation test drives to members. By following an unusual process improvement strategy, the net result was a boost in sales.

In the process improvement arena, we all know about strategies such as fool-proofing a process—designing it so that the work cannot be done incorrectly. There is the example of the ISBN numbering system for books, in which an algorithm checks to see that the number entered into a computer computes to a prescribed outcome. If it does not, the number has been incorrectly entered or does not exist. The same is done with credit card numbers. This is similar to fool-proofing.

During World War II, Avondale shipyards was under huge pressure to reduce the time it took to build a ship, because in a war, ships are destroyed almost as quickly as they are built. One of the problems they faced was the fact that welding in the keel area was difficult, and when the ship was positioned keel-down, the steel plate used for the sides of the ship tends to deform outward, making welding difficult. They decided to build ships upside down, which made welding easier both for the keel and the steel plate, and additionally improved quality and reduced manufacturing cost. This strategy, incidentally, is still used by some ship yards.

Dr. Deming’s Process Improvement Dictum

One strategy that is sometimes overlooked in process improvement is the dictum from Dr. Deming that "there is no use in improving a process that should be eliminated." My absolutely favorite example of this process improvement dictum is how trucks are being weighed by some inspection stations. Until recently, all trucks had to leave the road and pull onto conventional scales. This meant sitting in long queues, wasting time and fuel. Now they employ a weigh-in-motion system, in which trucks that are well below the weight limits just "keep on trucking," to use the colloquial expression. This is done by placing seismic sensors in the highway and measuring the propagation of waves through the concrete as a truck rolls by. I don’t have data on the savings they have achieved through this, but it must be huge. Similarly, we now have bar-code readers that are affixed to automobiles that regularly go through toll booths so that drivers don’t have to stop to pay a toll every day.

Don’t Take Your Process Improvement Strategy for Granted

My challenge to you is to never take for granted that the way you conduct process improvement is the only way. It should be common practice to examine your process improvement strategy and ask if there might be a better way. Often these will come from some discipline outside your own. By benchmarking how people in other industries do process improvement, you may find ideas that you can apply to your own processes.

It’s certainly worth trying.