what is process improvement

Process improvement involves the business practice of identifying, analyzing and improving existing business processes to optimize performance, meet best practice standards or simply improve quality and the user experience for customers and end-users.

Process improvement can have several different names such as business process management (BPM), business process improvement (BPI), business process re-engineering, continual improvement process (CIP), to name a few. Regardless of the nomenclature, they all pursue the same goal: to minimize errors, reduce waste, improve productivity and streamline efficiency.

Process Improvement Methodologies

#1. PDCA Cycle

The PDCA cycle is a component of many continuous improvement methodologies. Its steps include:

•              Plan. Spot room for improvement, and develop a plan for change.

•              Do. Implement the change on a small scale as a test.

•              Check. Look at the results of the change and determine its efficacy.

•              Act. Take action depending on the results you observed—implement the change broadly or revisit the cycle to spot more room for improvement.

This cycle is also sometimes referred to as PDSA—Plan, Do, Study, Act—or the Deming Cycle, after W. Edwards Deming, who developed it in the 1950s.

Just like the Lean and Agile project management methodologies that usually complement it, PDCA and continuous improvement process methodologies are iterative approaches to learning, development and improvement.

#2. Kaizen

Kaizen is a process improvement methodology focused on continuous improvement that involves the entire company in a bottom-up strategy.

The core aim of Kaizen is to create a company culture that encourages employees at all levels to spot, suggest and implement process improvements. It pays particular attention to involving plant floor employees—in manufacturing facilities—in process improvement.

In practice, the methodology is centered on so-called Kaizen events—i.e., the action steps for process improvement. Kaizen events involve employees at all levels of the organization and include:

  1. Setting and stating business or project goals
  2. Reviewing the current process to spot room for improvement
  3. Implementing necessary changes
  4. Reviewing the changes, and fix as necessary
  5. Documenting and reporting results

#3. TQM

Total Quality Management (TQM) is a similar system to Kaizen in that it aims to involve the whole company in process improvement.

It takes a stronger focus on customer satisfaction than Kaizen, considering internal or external customer satisfaction the measure of success in the system.

An analysis of TQM and Kaizen by researchers at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore, Pakistan, notes that, while Kaizen is a bottom-up approach, TQM uses both a top-down and bottom-up approach. That means management and leadership are encouraged to spot and implement improvements as much as employees are.

Like Kaizen, TQM implementation follows the PDCA cycle. The TQM philosophy relies on a set of principles that include:

  • Leadership commitment
  • Employee engagement
  • Fact-based decision-making
  • Continual improvement
  • Customer focus

#4. Theory of Constraints

Introduced by Israeli business management expert Eliyahu M. Goldratt in 1984, the theory of constraints is based on a belief that a process will always include at least one constraint that hinders efficiency and business goals—e.g., limits production.

Constraints are often equipment, policies or people (including the number of people and their mindsets or skill sets) that limit a system from producing more than it is. In other words, a constraint is a bottleneck in the process.

The goal of this methodology is to identify those constraints and discover how to open up the bottleneck by breaking the constraint or adding buffers to keep it from limiting the entire system.

Implementing the theory of constraints follows these five steps:

  1. Identify a process’s constraint(s)
  2. Exploit the constraint—examine it to determine how to use it to its full capacity
  3. Subordinate to the constraint, or set up everything else in the system to support the best possible performance from the constraint
  4. Elevate the constraint by adding resources or adjusting processes to open up the bottleneck
  5. Repeat the process

Remember, the theory of constraints assumes there’s always at least one constraint on a process. That doesn’t mean the process is broken. Instead, it means you can always find ways to improve it to increase its efficiency and productivity. This requires constantly identifying and opening up constraints.

#5. 5S

S is a methodology that uses a list of five Japanese words:

  1. Seiri (translation: sort)
  2. Seiton (translation: set in order)
  3. Seisō (translation: shine)
  4. Seiketsu (translation: standardize)
  5. Shitsuke (translation: sustain)

Together, they describe how to best organize a business or process for better efficiency and effectiveness.

Learn more about how to use this methodology and implement it within your own organization with Pipefy’s free 5S methodology template.

#6. SIPOC analysis and process mapping 

SIPOC stands for suppliers, input information, process, output, and customers. SIPOC diagrams are detailed high-level process maps. This helps identify relevant elements of a process before teams start working so as to better understand how processes should work.

Once the SIPOC analysis is completed, it’s time to begin process mapping. At this stage, the high-level process map becomes a much more detailed process map that outlines every person, department, action, or procedure that happens between Point A (starting point) and Point B (ending point).

#7. VSM

Value stream mapping displays all steps required to deliver value to the customer, whether they are external (customers) or internal (employees). A value stream flowchart will include each and every step required to complete a process. 

VSM helps teams see the big picture of your processes and pinpoint everything that can be improved.

#8. Kanban

Kanban is a great way to encourage feedback and map out any continuous process improvements by visualizing a board with dynamic columns that make all tasks within a process and their status clear. This brings visibility to all improvements or tasks.

If work flows smoothly through a process and that is visually apparent, then the process is working. But if the process is not flowing and backlogs become apparent throughout the process, then it becomes clear that something is wrong and a process improvement is in order.

Examples of Process Improvement in Action

Process improvement methodologies could apply to any part of your business, though they’re most often connected with the productivity levels of manufacturing processes.

Here are some examples of where you might identify constraints, challenges or opportunities in processes across your organization:

  • System downtime in manufacturing facilities
  • Time-consuming approval processes
  • Disempowered, single-task employees
  • Excessive email or Slack communication
  • Unused product inventory
  • Processes that involve excessive non-billable hours
  • Duplicate reporting

Leave a Comment