In any size business, small or large, to be effective the business must be able to sustain itself. Inefficiencies in management and workflow processes, or products that contain serious defects, will ultimately lead to failure, unless the problems can be identified and corrected. But when the economy is booming and business is good, it can be very difficult to focus on finding and correcting flaws in products or processes; conversely, in a downturn, business leaders are often desperate to find ways to cut costs and improve efficiency.
This is clearly illustrated by history. At the end of World War II, Japan, which had already suffered a crushing military defeat, was in ruins, its manufacturing capabilities all but destroyed. The few products they were producing were used as examples of poor quality all over the world. They were desperate for a way to improve their products, when they heard about a student of Walter Shewhart’s named W. Edwards Deming, whose methods they whole-heartedly adopted and embedded in their workflows.
The results spoke for themselves. Japanese products that had previously been ridiculed slowly began to improve; in the United States, the companies that had abandoned process improvement methods began a slow decline. By the late 1970s, the American automotive industry was known for manufacturing defects and poorly powered, gas-guzzling cars; the Japanese, meanwhile, established a reputation for reliable, high-quality, and fuel-efficient automobiles. The point to this little history lesson is that if you want your business to succeed, you must be vigilant and actively seek opportunities to improve your processes. Companies that pursue ongoing improvement—even when things are going
well—can achieve even greater success.
The example above focused on manufacturing, but service-oriented businesses, such as IT service desk or desktop support teams, can also benefit from concerted improvement efforts. In fact, if a business has never made the effort, the initial gains can be astonishing. How astonishing? Well, when I first started working on an improvement plan for the desktop support team at UnitedHealth Group, Inc., we identified several areas for potential improvement. Over a two-year period, we were able to reduce our per-device support costs by over 33 percent. By improving efficiency, we reduced the need for additional staff; and while our support staff did increase by 2 percent, the population we supported grew by nearly 21 percent. These gains were not made at the expense of our customers, since during the same period, our “missed SLA” metric declined from 22 percent to 8 percent, and our survey results indicated a 90 percent reduction in dissatisfied responses!
So, how do you get started with a continuous process improvement initiative? There are some challenges, but the results are well worth it. The first step is often the most difficult. In order for any improvement project to succeed, it needs to have the entire organization’s support. As with most projects, senior leadership support is vital, but support from your fellow managers and their staffs is just as critical, if not more so, because they will often be the ones you must rely upon to implement the changes.
At the executive level, you must set expectations right away. Immediate results are unlikely; it takes time to identify opportunities, and more time to properly implement measurable changes. Explain that an improvement initiative is not a one-time thing; it should be ongoing, and it needs to be integrated into the organization’s culture. Build a budget—be honest about the up-front costs for things like travel, meeting spaces, and working lunches. Then set a kick-off date, establish meaningful deliverables, and keep your executive sponsors in the loop. Be conservative in your timeline and allow plenty of time for implementing and measuring changes.
Your fellow managers and their staffs need to understand what will be expected from them, as well. Many process improvement concepts can be difficult to introduce into organizations that have long-established histories; you have to overcome the “we’ve always done it this way” attitude. Educate yourself on process improvement methods so you can, in turn, educate and market them to your peers. Try to get them excited about the prospect, and focus on efficiencies rather than cutting costs. When some managers hear “cutting costs,” they equate that with staff reductions. Focus on establishing efficiencies, on doing things better and faster, and improving the customer—and technical staff—experience. Translating efficiencies into reduced costs is easy and can come later.
Once you have the appropriate support in place, the next step is to prepare for the improvement project. The amount of work you need to do will depend upon the maturity of your support organization. To effectively manage an improvement initiative, you must have your processes documented, preferably with good workflow process maps and current KPIs and metrics for a starting baseline measure. In our case, we had started an initiative to map support processes prior to the improvement project, but it was not complete; we used the new project to ramp up our mapping efforts.
Once current processes have been documented, it is time to actually begin gathering feedback on those processes. This is the fulcrum on which you will leverage your entire improvement program. I strongly believe that if you want to know how a process is working, you must speak to the people who are directly involved in that process. That means you must speak with your analysts and technicians. Preferably, these meetings should be in-person, though budget restraints may require them to be held via teleconference or videoconference. Establish some clear rules ahead of time to set the tone of the meeting. For example, other than the project leader, there should be no management included in the meeting and there should be guaranteed confidentiality. Everyone should be completely comfortable speaking up, with no fear of reprisal. Be clear that their feedback will be captured, but that no names will be attached to any comment. No topic is “off limits” and everyone must participate; if there are attendees who are not speaking up, make a point of asking them for their opinions. For our project, we made a rule to make at least two passes around the table, going from person to person with the expectation that everyone would offer some feedback.
In order to get targeted feedback, your must prepare your questions before the meeting. These questions should spur brainstorming discussions, so they shouldn’t be too pointed. Keep them broad, and use additional leading questions to expand the discussion if necessary. We printed large-format versions of our process maps and placed them on the walls, encouraging the analysts to look them over. Then we’d ask questions like, “What barriers do you have when trying to do your work?” or “How can we make more effective use of technology and tools?” For these first meetings, it was also productive to simply ask, “What really frustrates you about your job?” or “If you could change one thing about your job, what would it be?”
Keep in mind that during these meetings you aren’t looking for solutions. You are trying to identify areas where you might introduce improvements. You are looking for problems. There may be many ways to solve these problems, but that can wait. At this point, you are just collecting opportunities for improvement. If the discussion starts to drift into root cause analysis, take control and steer it back on course.
During the course of the meeting, keep track of all the feedback. Capture everything; use whiteboards, sticky notes, or simply ask multiple people in the room to scribe and combine their efforts later. At the close of the meeting, the data will need to be compiled and analyzed for recurring themes. Take each of those recurring themes and sum them up and categorize them. Use a cause and effect chart, also known as a Fishbone diagram, to lay the data out in a visual format, or simply break it down in a spreadsheet.
Now that you have the data, it needs to be analyzed, so an action plan can be created. Often, one or two significant issues will immediately rise to the top. This is a decision point in the improvement process, as you will need to determine which potential improvements offer the most return on investment. This return can take the form of direct cost savings, or it may result in increased customer or employee satisfaction. When deciding, keep in mind a key part of any improvement initiative is marketing; for these first few issues, choose the ones with the most visibility, both by senior leadership and your peers and staff. Consider using a Pareto chart to demonstrate how frequently the issue arose during the focus meetings.
Once you have decided which issues to address first, begin discussing potential solutions. Baseline metrics are vital at this point! If the process being targeted for the potential change is not being measured, you must determine a way to capture some baseline data before implementing any changes. This may mean that, for a short time, some addition effort may need go into building a process to capture relevant data. This is important because, as you implement changes, you must be able to determine whether your changes had a positive or negative result. Set up a project charter that lays out the nature of the problem, what the goal (end state) should be, and the current metrics. As the project progresses, keep the charter updated with the latest data.
It may be necessary to come up with more than one solution to a particular problem. The key to process improvement is a willingness to take controlled risk and try new solutions. Sometimes, the solution won’t have the expected outcome, but there should be no stigma attached to a perceived “failure.” Instead, accept the first attempt and move on to the next.
There are a few tools that can help with root cause analysis for process improvement. The first is a SIPOC, which stands for Supplier Input Process Output Customer, and it visualizes the components of a process. Another is the FMEA, or Failure Mode Effects Analysis. This is a tool designed for manufacturing that my team was able to successfully adapt for a services environment. The FMEA allows you to walk through a process step by step, identifying the problems and providing a score. After an improvement is implemented, the process is scored again and hopefully—the new score is an improvement.
After you have identified and piloted the preferred solution, it’s time to implement the solution across the organization. This is not the end of the improvement, though, as a means of ongoing monitoring or measuring needs to be put into place to ensure that the process remains consistent over time. A good tool for this is some sort of time-series chart; a control chart is a great option, if the process can support it.
And don’t forget your marketing! Publicize what you’ve accomplished, and communicate it to your senior management, your peers, and your staff. With your leadership, focus on the cost savings and customer satisfaction; with staff, focus on gains in efficiency or satisfaction.
Initially, you may be able to make some sweeping changes, resulting in significant improvements that have clearly measurable results. As you continue looking for improvements, it will become difficult to find those same sweeping gains. A good analogy is a frog jumping towards a wall. If the frog is a yard away and can jump a foot at a time, the first few jumps are very productive. But at some point, the critter is going to hit the wall, so the jump may only be half as far. The same applies to improvement projects. You may always be able to find something, but as you progress, you will need to start making serious determinations whether a given improvement will provide a large enough return to warrant the effort.
When all is said and done, process improvement is essentially listening to your customers, staff, and management and acting on their suggestions to make the workplace better. I’ve always been a fan of Walt Disney, and there’s a story about him that I’ll share in closing. He used to take a walk through his park every morning before it opened, and one day a very upset gardener approached him. It seems customers had been trampling his flower bed, taking a short cut from one point to another. The gardener asked if he could have a fence put up to prevent the damage, but Walt wouldn’t hear of it. Why? Because he believed the customers weren’t being malicious, they were simply sending a message that they needed a path to get from one point to another. So, instead of building a fence, build a path!
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Michael Hanson has been involved with many aspects of IT over the last twenty-five years, from application development to desktop support. Today, he is a senior IT manager at UnitedHealth Group, Inc., where, through process improvement, knowledge and problem management, metrics and reporting, tool development, training, and business liaisons, his team has implemented a very successful improvement program, resulting in significant and measurable savings in costs and efficiency. Michael holds a number of certifications and is a member of HDI’s Desktop Support Leadership Council.