Improving Processes: The Key to Lean Six Sigma Success!

By now, most people are familiar with the need for improving, radically changing, and controlling processes. The works of W. Edwards Deming, Michael Hammer, Joseph Juran, and dozens of others have focused on a very fundamental truth: The main source of waste and inefficiencies are problems in the process.

Before we begin, it would be helpful to define the term "process." Here goes: A process is a repeatable sequence of operations, organized to produce a set of desired outcomes.

Interestingly, when organizations first analyze their critical processes they are usually struck by how complex they are. Many processes that are absolutely central to the success of an organization, were not designed; they just evolved. They consist of activities passed on from one generation of managers and workers to the next.

(It should be duly noted that there are several approaches to analyzing a process. In many cases, more than one approach may be needed. The two most popular approaches are process flow charts and control charts.

Indeed, W. Edwards Deming's primary method of process analysis and improvement was dependent upon the use of statistical control charting--a technique developed by Walter Shewhart in the 1920's at Bell Laboratories. (In this article, we discuss only process flow charting.)

Once organizations understand the complexities of the processes they use, they're not surprised at the frequency with which defects and problems emerge. In fact, after making a flow chart of mission-critical processes, executives are surprised that they're still in business.

Working smarter, not harder

The central message of today's Lean Six Sigma/process management experts is that it is sheer folly to expect that incentives, reprimands, and other devices to improve performance will work. Why? If the process within which work is being produced is flawed, it is impossible to achieve desired results.

If quality or expected performance is below expectations when people do their jobs as designed, then asking them to "do better" is managerial nonsense. The process must be significantly improved or redesigned. Doing the job right when saddled with a flawed process inevitably results in sub-standard performance.

One of the key messages of Deming was: "Quality problems are the fault of management, not workers." Why? Because it is management's responsibility to streamline or reengineer processes.

Deming was critical of performance reviews. Poor performance, he reasoned, was the result of a poorly designed process or a process that has become burdened with non- productive activities.

In short, performance reviews focus on the individual, not the system. The only way to improve performance is to understand and correct the process that generates problems. Fix the process, and the problems will vanish.

Improvement versus abandonment

It must be mentioned—indeed, emphasized— that many of the diagnostic tools contained the tool box of 6 sigma practitioners (most notably Pareto analysis) point to the concept of abandonment of existing processes and activities. If there's any real key to the management of change, it is the ability to abandon the unproductive and the obsolete.

Attempts to improve processes that do not contribute value are a waste of time, talent and money. Peter F. Drucker, the foremost management expert of the 20th-century, said: "The worst sin an organization can practice is to do a little bit more efficiently which should not be done at all." ( See Drucker Perspective column.)

The first question to ask is not "What should we do?" but rather "What should we stop doing? " If done properly, process analysis and management inevitably leads to the sloughing off of activities, programs and processes that devour resources but contribute little to the accomplishment of performance objectives.

The basic methodology of process improvement

Continuous improvement is itself a process consisting of four basic components—namely:

  1. defining the problem
  2. making the diagnosis
  3. administering the remedy
  4. holding and extending the gains.

Lean Six Sigma/process excellence has its own "black bag" of specialized instruments— process flow diagrams, cause and effect diagrams, Pareto analysis, control charts, and many more. Quite frankly, we believe the work of Joseph Juran is most responsible for the basic methodology used by today's Lean Six Sigma practitioners.

However, it is important to note that both Deming and Juran were, at one time or another, involved with Bell Labs. Peter F. Drucker, the most influential management thinker of the 20th-century, provided managers with a more holistic view of the management process. In Managing In A time Of Great Change (New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton,1995), Drucker said in a chapter entitled "Reinventing Government":

" Continuous improvement is considered a recent Japanese invention-- the Japanese call it Kaizen... But in fact it was used almost 80 years ago, and in the United States. From the First World War until the early '80s, when it was dissolved, the Bell Telephone system applied "continuous improvement " to every one of its activities and processes, to whether it was installing a telephone in the home or manufacturing switch gear. For every one of these activities, Bell defined results, performance, quality, and cost. And for everyone, it set an annual improvement goal... "

The basic methodology for discovering the reasons why a process is underperforming can be found in the collected works of Deming, Juran, Drucker, and Alvin Feigenbaum( Indeed, it was Feigenbaum who coined the term " total quality management "). Juran breaks down, process analysis and improvement into two basic steps:

  1. Defining and understanding the existing process
  2. Analyzing the existing process to determine where the flaws-- and thus discovering where the opportunities for improvement-- lie

Process analysis begins by defining the steps in an existing process. The basic methodology employed in defining and understanding the process is a process flow diagram/chart. In essence, a process flow chart converts what may seem like a vague, collection of activities into an easily visualized series of steps. The flow diagram illuminates inefficiencies and obstructions.

A system is typically defined as a collection of interrelated processes. Understanding an existing process or a system requires that people from all functions and hierarchal levels think and act together.

If changes are made to any one part of a system or process without considering all the other parts, the impact can actually be negative. Only a "whole system" can solve "whole system" problems.

Understanding individual processes requires that people from all parts of the process sit down together and map out the steps which make up the process. As this is done, the reasons for the problem(s) become quite evident.

This is the beginning of genuine process improvement. Flow charting is the starting point for a group of process owners to develop a shared understanding of what's really happening and why problems are occurring. This leads to real learning and real improvement.

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