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by Harish C. Mehra, Ph.D.

Thou Shalt Improve Thy Processes
Follow the 10 commandments of continual process improvement.



Customer expectations and the business environment change so rapidly that even efficient processes can become obsolete overnight. If an organ-ization expects to remain competitive, it must plan to improve its workplace processes by approximately 10 to 20 percent annually. Continual process improvement--an initiative that simplifies and/or eliminates steps that don’t add value to the final product--is perhaps the best way to meet that challenge. To improve our value-creating ability, we must improve our value-creating process.

CPI focuses on employee effort to reduce costs associated with waste, duplication, delays and errors. The process saves both time and money, but more important, it also encourages people to think creatively and stay focused.

Management as well as employees must actively seek opportunities for improvement in every functional area of their organization.

CPI creates the chain reaction in an organization, as illustrated to the right.

Beginning in 1995, DeLaval, a manufacturer of specialty chemicals for the food and dairy industry, made tremendous strides in improving processes through CPI. Employees, voluntarily seeking process improvement in their work areas, formed cross-functional and self-directed teams and followed the 10-step improvement-project guideline outlined in this editorial. Optimal results of completed projects were presented to senior management at forums three times a year. These companywide efforts resulted in substantial savings through improved quality, safety, efficiency, customer satisfaction, waste elimination and cycle-time reduction.

Here are the CPI 10 commandments:

Define the problem. This is one of the most important steps of effective problem solving. A problem statement is highly focused, simply stated and indicates a means for measuring the solution’s results.

Document your process. Map the current process so it can be evaluated for bottlenecks, duplications and opportunities. Also quantify the cost (in both hard and soft dollars) of the condition and process. Consider the project’s effect on every component within the organization.

Develop an objective statement. Establish explicit team expectations that include a clear direction and time frame. The statement should always be measurable. This enables the team to recognize if it missed, reached or exceeded the objective.

Analyze data. Cause-and-effect analysis is a structural method for panoramically diagnosing a problem. Use brainstorming techniques to identify all possible causes and effects. Concentrate on the root cause, which is often initially invisible. A Pareto chart can help a team focus on issues that will add the greatest value, if solved.

Develop several solutions. Team input is very important during this exercise. Entertain abnormal ideas, silly questions and odd possibilities, but focus on solutions rather than problems. At this point, you’re not seeking the root cause--which you should already know--but rather its effective solutions.

Test your solutions. Testing includes running pilot tests, identifying areas of measurement and analyzing the results. Include data for cost effectiveness, cycle-time reduction, quality improvement and process/outcome measures.

Implement the best solution. Compare and evaluate each solution in terms of cost, value to the customer, return on investment, implementation time, leadership commitment and required changes. Select the best two solutions and develop a force-field analysis for driving and restraining forces. Based on those results, choose the best solution. It’s also important to standardize new procedures, operations and activities that will result. Sell others on the new process. Train all involved employees in the improved process and continually update training.

Track your progress. Once the optimal solution has been implemented, it’s important to monitor and fine-tune the new process. Collect data with run charts, control charts and Pareto charts.

Document the results. This documentation should include savings, both in hard and soft dollars, if applicable. In general, the improved process--which should be flowcharted--will have greater efficiency, fewer steps and less downtime.

Present the results. This should include an explanation of how the process improvement creates an ongoing winning situation for customers, employees and shareholders. Keep in mind Walter A. Shewhart’s plan-do-check-act cycle.

To remain effective and profitable, businesses must function more efficiently with less, which they can do if every member of the organization contributes to upgrading every working process’s capability. Your company’s economic health, not to mention its longevity, depends on you.

About the author

Harish C. Mehra, Ph.D., is quality manager for DeLaval in Turlock, California. He also teaches quality and operation management at California State University, Stanislaus, School of Business. Send letters to the editor regarding this editorial to letters@qualitydigest.com.