Article by John A. Wood
Broadway Bank Senior Vice President
Process Improvement Coordinator Finance
Better … faster … cheaper … are common objectives for businesses that understand that long-term success and survival depends on their ability to achieve continuous improvement. When we get down to it, “everything is a process.” It’s often a challenge to understand or recognize the larger processes involved in completing a project. Instead we focus our attention on discrete acts and moments to get through the task at hand in order to move on to the next one. This is a survival method for those who just see the overwhelming number of tasks that must be completed. However, seeing the big-picture process helps us prioritize or even question the need for theses various tasks.
Preparing a meal, conducting a financial transaction or building a piece of equipment each require a series of steps that produce a product, service or desired outcome. We must determine if the process produces desirable results and then we can see how changes in process steps can affect and/or improve the final output.
So, who determines if the process outputs are desirable? If I am the only person who eats the meal I prepare, then I decide if the process of making it was successful. However, if I’m the chef at a five-star restaurant, then my customers make that determination.
Most small and large businesses are aware of their various processes, but they may not understand the true quality of their process outputs. If they do not understand where process quality occurs, they cannot determine which process steps to improve or modify to achieve the greatest positive gains.
The optimal “process for managing our processes” would include the following steps:
1. Define the process — What is the overall output we are trying to achieve? For example, an auto mechanic might define the completion of his overall process by saying the output is a repaired vehicle.
2. Define the process steps — For vehicle repair, the steps might include: 1) receive a vehicle, 2) diagnose a problem, 3) order needed parts, 4) replace those parts, 5) rerun diagnostics, 6) collect payment, and 7) deliver the finished vehicle.
3. Define the quality standards of the process — What are the “critical to quality” (CTQ) elements of the process output? An auto mechanic might determine that passing a final diagnostic test indicates a satisfactory process outcome. But, is he the one who ultimately determines the quality of the process? What if the repair is made using substandard parts that won’t last long? What if the car is returned to its owner with grease stains on the upholstery? What if the repair took too long to complete?
4. Adjust or improve process steps to achieve the desired outcome from the perspective of the ultimate customer — The mechanic might want to consider changing the step where parts are ordered, or using a protective covering on the upholstery or revising the scheduling step so repairs are completed in a timely manner.
The steps in this example are simplistic. They don’t consider that various constraints like budgets, legal requirements and culture will possibly impact our work. But understanding how our efforts are part of a larger process will both help us take advantage of opportunities and deal with constraints.
Businesses need to understand their primary processes and whether those processes truly achieve the best quality outcomes in the eyes of their customers. Only then can they achieve the ongoing improvement that is so critical to their long-term success!