Article updated July 19, 2022
Even in the most structured organizations, many workplace processes are chaotic and disorganized. There’s incomplete or outdated documentation, duplication of effort, different people carry out the process in a slightly different way, or the same employee does something slightly different each time. This is stressful for employees and costly for organizations.
Most of our processes don’t start out this way, but over time, small changes occur and workarounds are developed rather than going through a complete overhaul. Sometimes work is pieced together out of necessity and nobody really gives it any strategic thought or considers how it will affect the big picture. Usually this isn’t a problem because we are knowledge workers—we adapt our thinking to compensate for what is an inefficient process. We make it work.
The problems occur when a key employee leaves and takes that knowledge with them or a new employee is hired and needs to be trained on all the exceptions. When a process is difficult and requires a lot of mental concentration, we are also prone to making more mistakes and errors when we are tired, overworked, or otherwise not functioning at our best. In some jobs, this is a critical flaw in terms of risks and outcomes.
This is an opportunity for process improvement using lean principles. The lean philosophy emphasizes creating more value for customers with fewer resources through optimizing the flow of work. The outcome is a more organized state of operation where employees have access to tools they need, they are empowered to deliver delightful customer-service, cost savings are realized due to efficient processes and workflows, and all this leads to profitable business results.
Implementing lean process improvement can become quite involved and detailed. However, the basic principles are simple and straightforward:
1. Focus on your customer.
Ultimately, what all customers want is value. Value creation occurs when the quality of services received is perceived as high compared to their cost. What does your customer want and how can you provide it better, faster, cheaper?
2. Figure out how the work gets done.
We have lots of assumptions about how work gets done that don’t mirror exactly what happens. After all, during the day-to-day grind, we don’t think about how we do the work, we often just do it. Ask an outside observer to record the steps of the process in a way that he/she could repeat it themselves if they had to, without assistance.
3. Remove inefficiencies and waste.
Once you know what the workflow of your process looks like, take a second look at any step in the process that doesn’t directly create value for the customer. Manage, improve, and smooth your process flow to eliminate non-valued-added activity (e.g., wasted time, wasted movement, wasted inventory due to overproduction, customer delays, waiting for approvals, delays due to batching of work, unnecessary steps, duplication of effort, and errors and rework).
4. Track numbers and manage by evidence.
Sometimes what should work well doesn’t. Test out your process, collect data on how well it is working, highlight and eliminate errors, and seek continuous improvements in value. Seek proof; don’t assume an improvement has been made.
5. Empower the people operating the process.
The best person to improve a process is the person who carries out the process. Utilize employee’s full skillsets—can someone be doing more? If the process is improved, they will likely have time to take on higher level work.
6. Go about all this in a systematic way.
Your process is not perfect and if by some miracle it is, it won’t stay that way for long. Changes will occur that will demand changes in the process. Being able to replicate the steps of process improvements is the key to delivering long-term, sustained value.