All businesses rely on a number of processes and systems to keep their various parts running smoothly and working together. Improving these business processes is vital for companies of any size, but especially important for large or growing organisations.
There are various popular methodologies you can follow, such as Lean Six Sigma or ISO standardisation but in this article, we're going to look at some top process improvement tools to help your business get in shape ready to hit your growth goals.
Continually improve to make your business the best
Despite the many processes and practices a business may have, if they are not regularly scrutinised and improved, inefficiencies can begin to creep in. The more inefficient a process becomes, the more likely it is to stop working and that's when business starts to suffer.
Poor performing processes can lead to:
- Wasted employee time
- Lowered productivity
- Errors and mistakes
- Physical costs to the business
By introducing one or more process improvement tools into your company, you can identify the warning signs early and endeavour to keep your processes in top shape and running as smooth as possible.
Here are 5 tried and tested process improvement tools.
1. 7 wastes
The idea of 7 wastes come from the Lean framework, but it involves breaking down general business areas that are common sources of resource wastage.
The 7 areas are:
The way to tackle this system is to look at each area in turn and see where and how your business can make improvements.
We'll briefly look at the 7 wastes below, but for more reading on the subject and to see how to improve these wastes, there is a great article on the 7 wastes here.
Although this doesn't always apply to all companies (digital agencies, for example), moving physical products between operations can cause wastage. Transportation is a waste because:
- No value is added during this phase
- Damage can occur
- Movement costs time, which costs money
- Losses can be introduced
- And surplus products are needed (bins, packaging, rollers, trucks, etc.)
Inventory takes up physical space and is a tricky balance to get right: too much inventory is dead money until it is turned into a product and has the potential to go to waste if never used for production; equally, too little of product A inventory can delay the production of product B.
Quite simply, this is related to the physical movement of people. By improving the efficiency of motion needed to get a job done, that job will be done more efficiently and at a reduced risk to the employee.
Nobody likes waiting, certainly more than they have to. Waiting is essentially dead space in any process and too much waiting increases the overall process/production time. This leads to increased costs and time to payment; not only that, but you can never recover this wasted time.
When examining your processes, try to identify areas where there are large or unnecessary periods of waiting. Can they be eliminated, or reduced, perhaps by bringing other processes inline faster, or improving communications between multiple parts?
Again, this part is quite straightforward: producing too much. There is a fear amongst some business that idle equipment should not stay idle, or perhaps that it is better to be prepared for a demand spike.
However, over-producing leads to a similar issue as too much inventory, costing money and preventing a balanced production flow.
This is similar to over-production, but it involves over-complicating processes, either with too many steps, too much complexity, expensive machines that are overkill to the manufacturing stage and so on.
Broken or defective products are a money pit. If the defects are identified early, this leads to just the cost of manufacturing (although this can creep up with wasted employee time, materials, running costs, etc.).
However, discovering defects and damages late on - from the customer, for example - this not only incurs the cost of manufacturing the product, but its replacement to the customer and the potential for a tarnished reputation if the defect is significant.
2. Quality audits
A quality audit is an investigation of the standards of a particular process. Using a form or checklist to capture the data allows you to both assess what is and isn't working as well as provide a measure against which to improve.
Looking at internal quality audits where you will scrutinise your own company's processes, the aim will be on identifying areas that can benefit from continuous improvement.
There are various types of audit you can perform:
- and many more
The best way to start is to determine the focus of the audit. Do you want to improve a particular process, or comply more closely with ISO regulations, for example?
From here, you need to impartially scrutinise the area you have chosen to focus on, record any findings using a suitable data capture mechanism (paper form, digital app, videos, testimonials, etc.), report the findings and determine any areas for improvement.
When things are simple and straightforward, with little room for error or manoeuvre, it's not always worthwhile to document your processes. However as these processes grow and evolve, adding more steps, different departments, more people, documentation is key for both auditing how effective the processes are as well as keeping everyone on the same page.
Flowcharts are a great way to visually map out processes and operations so you can follow a the process through various stages and see how choices can determine which branch they venture down.
What's more, flowcharts can be chained together to break down complex processes into smaller component parts.
Flowcharts are a great way to improve a process because:
- They allow you to visually document the step by step action of a process
- They can highlight blind spots, bottlenecks and areas for improvement
Some good questions to ask when plotting out a flowchart are:
- Does the chart capture each step?
- Is anything missing?
- Is this step necessary?
- Can some steps be combined or shortened?
- Can this area be simplified?
- Are too many/few people involved?
Just like any area of business there are hundreds of software solutions to choose from. When it comes to flowcharts, one of the best options is Lucid Chart. It's free to get started (although it has various paid tiers if you need more features or want to use it in a large team) and everything's done through their website, saved in the cloud and can be shared and exported for other team members to review.
4. SWOT analysis
Many people are familiar with the SWOT model. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.
The SWOT model is perfect for conducting reviews and brainstorming sessions as it helps kick-start idea generation and helps evaluate issues.
To conduct your own SWOT analysis, the steps involved might look like this:
- Choose a team
- Brainstorm the strengths
- Then the weaknesses
- Opportunities next
- and finally the threats
- Create a professional SWOT diagram from the results
- Review the outcome and decide what the actions should be.
DMAIC is a project methodology comprised of 5 stages which we'll outline below. Like any solid process improvement practice, DMAIC is designed to deliver improvements that are data-driven, measurable and repeatable.
During the Define stage, you should consider high-impact areas for improvement.
For example, if you were building a website, a high-impact area might be shortening the delivery time between design and final launch. For a brewery, this might be reducing production costs.
Part of this area would be to identify the area(s) to improve, putting together a plan and assigning this to a team responsible for carrying the plan out.
It's important to establish a baseline or benchmark against which to measure the end improvements - otherwise, how would you know it had worked?!
Existing processes are documented and methods are determined by which the impact will be measured.
This is the real deep dig into the current processes to determine where the problems lie and that and improvements are made to the underlying causes, not just the symptoms.
By now there should be a solid plan in place to be able to measure the success of the improvement as well as a plan for how the improvement will take place.
Determine what actions and steps will be taken and begin to roll out the changes across the organisation or specific area, keeping in mind the importance of involving key stakeholders and communicating regularly to make sure the improvements are well received and actually working.
Any change is difficult and so it's vital during the Control stage to effectively monitor and tweak the improvement implementation for long-term success. Ask questions such as 'is this working?', 'do we need additional improvements?' and 'are there any failures in the new process(es)?'.
Learn what works for you
It can by difficult to know what the best approach for your business is. The key to getting it right is by trying a few different process improvement ideas out and seeing which yields the best results; usually the ones that have the maximum impact for the minimum disruption are a good fit.
You can also talk to a few businesses in a similar area to yours to see what pitfalls and problems they faced in trying to scale or grow their business. You'll be surprised how much advice you can glean and how many businesses are in the same boat.
In fact, why not take a look at our networking and events calendar and find an upcoming event to meet and mingle with like-minded businesses?