Improving Business Processes

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How to Get Your Business Processes To Work Right!

A process is basically the way work gets done. It is the series of steps that have been planned to result, if followed consistently, in what is needed.

Manufacturing executes processes that result in products. Engineering executes processes that result in designs. Purchasing has processes that result in quality products and services received. Sales has processes that result in new orders or contracts. Service companies have their own unique series of processes. All businesses and all parts of an organization have processes designed to produce results; and often individual processes are connected together in bigger processes to produce even bigger results.

In order for any process to work right and produce its intended results, it must follow four basic rules:

  1. The process must be defined by those who plan the work
  2. The process must be understood by those who do the work
  3. The process must be easy to carry out on the job
  4. The process must be measured to understand its results

No matter what type of process in whatever kind of business, every process must follow these four rules to be effective. Break any of the rules and the process will fail.

For example:

  • If a process isn't defined clearly, it will be up to the individual worker how to get the job done; this means that the process will be done differently by different people.
  • If a process isn't fully understood by each individual worker, it will result in individuals to develop their own understanding of the process based on "educated guesses" and "trial and error".
  • If a process is difficult to follow because of various obstacles (problems with equipment, materials, schedules, instructions, etc.) workers will be forced to work "around the system" to get the job done; this will produce differing results.
  • If a process is not measured with reliable data, no one will really know how well results are being achieved and whether or not changes to the process should be made.

When a process is working well with good, predictable results, the four rules are being followed. Look at any of the well-running processes in your organization to see if you can observe the four rules in action.

Identifying a Problems Root-Cause

Problems occur when a process goes wrong. A "one time" problem results from a single breakdown of a process. A "recurring" problem comes from a process that consistently breaks one or more of the four rules.

In either case, when trying to solve a problem so that it is permanently resolved, a few basic questions can guide you to an understanding of what's wrong with the process that created the problem and, more importantly, what to do to correct it.

In quality assurance lingo, this step in an ISO 9001:2008 corrective action process is called investigating the "root cause".

Here are some investigative questions you can use to find the root cause of any process-related problem:

  1. Where is the process formally defined?
  2. Can those doing the work demonstrate complete understanding of the defined process?
  3. Are there obstacles in the process that prevent consistent adherence to the defined process?
  4. Do the measured results show the process capable of consistently meeting requirements?

These four simple questions are remarkably powerful in diagnosing the root cause of a problem.

When using the questions, keep two general guidelines in mind. First, asking the four questions presupposes that you know which process originates the problem. In most problem-solving situations, there is a single process that has failed and has led to the problem. Be aware that because processes are linked, a problem seen "downstream" at the end of a series of processes may have resulted from a breakdown "upstream" at a previous process. Asking "why?" several times will help guide you to the original process that failed.

Secondly, the four questions must be asked in order. For example, it is meaningless to ask workers to demonstrate their understanding (question 2) of a process that is not defined (question 1).

Any reliable process first must be defined which means that it is documented, at least at a basic level. If then the process is defined and documented, checking understanding is based on specific requirements for the process, rather than the individual experiences and opinions of various workers.

Likewise, looking for obstacles in the process that cause people to "work around" the official process (question 3) is futile if they first cannot demonstrate understanding of the process (question 2).

This methodology for investigating the real reason behind a problem brings us to a definition of the "root cause":

Root Cause

The root cause of a problem is the weakness in the process that originates the problem.

There are, therefore, four possible "root causes" to any problem:

1.Inadequate definition of the process.

2.Inadequate understanding of the process.

3.Obstacles in the process leading to "mistakes" or "shortcuts".

4.Incapable process as shown by measurable data.

Accurately identifying the weakness (using the four questions) in the failed process is fundamental to determining the right corrective action to take to prevent the problem from recurring.

Corrective Action

Easy Corrective Action

As critical it is to find the root cause of a problem, it is useless if action is not taken to correct the process. Fortunately, the four questions not only guide the investigation of the cause, they also direct you to the right corrective action.

What a waste it is when a problem is well understood and the root cause is identified yet the right corrective action is not taken.

Corrective actions become clear based on which of the four questions reveal the root cause:

  1. If the process is not defined adequately, create or update necessary documentation.
  2. If the process is not fully understood, provide training.
  3. If the process has obstacles, identify and remove them.
  4. If, after addressing 1-3 above, the process measures show the process incapable of meeting requirements, re-design the process (then ask questions 1-3 again).

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