Improving Process Improvement – Part 1 of 2

Work practices that drive better, faster, cheaper projects

In the opening blog of this series we had explored what a Process Improvement (PI) function would look like if it could apply its principles of reducing waste and variation to its own way of working. We analysed in some detail the measures that can identify a PI function that takes its own medicine. In this blog, we build on that analysis to identify the work practices that influence those measures in the right direction. Follow up blogs will go further and cover tools and techniques that can support such work practices. And finally in the concluding section, we will look at applying continuous improvement to the function.

So what are the work practices that can drive better, faster and cheaper projects with lasting impact, and in a manner that they are also repeatable and predictable?

Practices that drive Effectiveness – we had defined effectiveness of the improvement function to be measured as the quality and quantity of improvement ideas and their successful execution. In this context, successful implementation is defined as “on time and on budget based on agreed scope”. The longevity of the improvements is addressed as a measure in its own right.

The work practices that impact these measures relate to sourcing and capturing of ideas, project planning and execution, program office and governance. These fields are replete with methodologies aimed at making these activities effective, so rather than repeat or summarise that existing and comprehensive body of knowledge, we have chosen to highlight a few recommended practices that work particularly well for process improvement projects, as opposed to any project. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, as many broader best practices for project management and execution in general, are also applicable.

  • Pushing harder on the process lever: There is a tendency in business operations to presume IT dependencies (“the new platform will fix everything, let’s wait for that”) or assign unrealistic expectations to what can be achieved with culture change and peoples’ skills and competencies. Organisations are created with people, process and technology; each of these can be a source of strength or weakness. There is no general rule about which lever will provide the best return on investment, but the process level is most often under-leveraged so it is a natural place to start. Improvements can be made without embarking on costly IT change or on difficult culture change. A work practice that explores and questions all process assumptions, metrics, root causes and potential solutions is well-placed to enable impactful projects. For this, it is essential to capture and reuse learnings from similar processes across businesses and industries. While each industry has its nuances, the similarities are also quite striking and there is money on the table in looking for cross-vertical learnings.
  • A balance between agility and thoroughness: PI practitioners explore symptoms, causes and remedies, quite like a medical practitioner does. And like a good doctor, a good PI professional should be able to thoroughly investigate things that matter, and minimise wasting time on things that don’t. In addition, business processes are often plagued by inadequate measurement systems, so having a very focused view of what data is really needed can go a long way in eliminating wasted effort as well as wait times involved in obtaining the data. Practitioners who can use past experience and their network of peers in a manner that reduces both Alph and Beta error in deciding the metrics, causes and solutions of relevance in any given situation, can deliver faster and higher impact projects. They can also avoid the trap of inaction due to inadequate data.
  • High-impact yet low-touch mentoring and collaboration: The quality of interaction between external domain experts and the project team, and between process owners and PI practitioners can be a significant source of impact. Ways of working that focus the conversation on the insights being created, and minimise time spent in “setting context”, will deliver faster and better outcomes. We often find it can take days, if not weeks, just to get external experts to a level of understanding about the business context that they can then add value to the project team’s thinking. If both sides use a commonly agreed way of framing the problem statement, we can reduce this to hours instead. We can use the medical analogy here again. Imagine a specialist who can look at an X-ray and provide advice within minutes. Apart from their own expertise, this also depends on the standardised approach with which the GP prescribes the right X-ray, the technician who configures the machine correctly, the manufacturer who builds the machine to cope with that, and the radiologist who analyses the results in a particular way. If the standardisation in any one of these links is not correct, the specialist cannot do their job so quickly. We need to drive similar high-impact yet low-touch ways of pulling in external expertise to enable the project – be it methodology mentors, domain experts or process owners – by having commonly agreed ways of framing and defining problems.

Watch this space for the next blog on practices that drive efficiency in project delivery.