Demystifying Process Improvement Implementation

  •  Introduction
  • Consider the following:
  • In 2002, Toyota received more than two million process improvement ideas from its employees.
  • In 2003, Toyota surpassed Ford as the number two automaker in the world.
  • That same year, Toyota’s profits dwarfed those of number one General Motors, earning $13.6 billion compared to $2.8 billion for GM.Think they might be on to something?What they’re on to is a firm commitment to ongoing process improvement.In fact, those two million ideas — however small — are considered by Toyota to be the most important part of its manufacturing process. Each year, Toyota saves millions of dollars by tapping into the ingenuity and motivation for process improvement that exists within every one of its employees. As a result, they’re able to continually drive costs lower while improving quality.Obviously, process improvement is no newcomer to the scene. Most companies already have some sort of process improvement program in place.

    This issue is, why do some companies like Toyota manage to do process improvement so well while others do it so poorly that it ends up costing rather than saving them money?

    Foundational Truths

    Continuous process improvement (PI) is defined as “the endeavor to satisfy customer expectations, reduce costs and increase productivity by improving processes via the reduction of variation, complexity and cycle time.” Doing it well, however, requires understanding and believing in several foundational truths:


  • Teams outperform individuals. For complex problems that require cross-functional expertise, teams will always outperform individuals working alone.
  • A strong customer-supplier chain is critical. Employees must understand their personal “product” and the needs of their immediate customers, both internal and external.
  • People want to improve. Most employees want to improve their processes so they can be the best they can be. It is an inherent human trait to want things better.
  • Your employees run your company. Every employee owns and operates a sub-process in the very large process called a business. Your employees run your company because they control all the processes that make it a business.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             A Five-Step Approach                                                                                                                                                                                                     The effective implementation of continuous improvement requires the involvement of everyone in the organization. Through a team-based environment, employees can be empowered and have ownership in improving the processes they perform on a daily basis.
  • An approach that demystifies continuous process improvement implementation can be found in five essential steps:
  • Establish and mobilize a steering team. The first step in any significant change effort is to bring together a knowledgeable group of people to address the basic implementation issues and establish a guiding direction. The PI steering team should be cross-functional, with members that understand the organization well, have a strong desire to participate, and see the team as critical to organizational success.Once the guiding process improvement plan is developed, the steering team must present it to the senior management team. Without top management’s understanding and approval, no plan will have the support it needs to succeed. Once approved, the role of the steering team is literally to steer implementation and generate course correction.
  • Generate overall awareness. When organizations undergo massive change, the rumor mill kicks into high gear, with most of the rumors embodying a fear of the dark. To stop the rumor mill in its tracks, create a “Process Improvement Implementation Awareness Program” that tells employees what will happen in a step-by-step manner. Make sure the program answers the question on every employee’s mind: “What’s in it for me?” Finally, create excitement by explaining the benefits of the plan, such as making work flow easier, improving bonuses (due to increased productivity), or having a greater say in how a process is run.
  • Implement a team-based culture. Team-based process improvement requires natural work teams and project teams. Natural work teams, which already exist at all levels of the organization (i.e., engineering team, manufacturing team, HR team), represent a team approach to managing the business at all levels. Their main task is to identify the processes they own, perform those processes to the best of their ability, and work to improve them.Project teams are brought together to address specific opportunities to improve a process or solve a problem, especially those that cross department boundaries and/or require multi-functional expertise. Project teams are not permanent, but can work well to break down walls or silos within the organization. The first project teams established should be selected to yield the highest returns on investment.
  • Charter and train natural work teams and initial project teams. Chartering a natural work team or project team involves clearly defining their purpose and function so that nothing can be left to the imagination. It also requires providing the correct tools and training, which consists of learning how to examine the process for improvement opportunities or problems and solving the problems in a manner that eliminates the root causes. Although often overlooked, chartering and training are critical foundational steps in establishing a productive team.
  • Implement the game plan. Implementation depends on the game plan itself, and includes the development of internal resources and the phasing out of external resources, such as consultants. The steering team and upper management must be intimately involved during this step, and should provide ongoing positive reinforcement to ensure success. Keep in mind that you never finish implementing the game plan, since this is all about continuousprocess improvement. Implementation is a cultural journey where the organization moves from its current state to a dynamic future state grounded in ever-continuing improvement.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Synergy in Action                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Some companies adopt an improvement approach that relies on three or four “home runs” generated by a few statistical specialists. This philosophy will typically generate a solid but limited return.In contrast, the PI principles addressed in this article are based on the premise that more heads are better than fewer. In PI, everyone needs to get involved, including the specialists. Home runs are nice, but in order to win the PI game the organization needs singles, doubles and triples, so that the little things people do add up in a big way.The true power of process improvement is synergy in action. When everyone pulls at the same end of the rope and the entire culture focuses on continuous process improvement, it creates an environment where ordinary people generate extraordinary results, winning together as one team.

    Scott Playfair is the founder and president of P Squared Consulting, a Houston-based management consulting firm.

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