PathMaker: A Process Improvement Toolkit
Software review by Dirk Dusharme
SkyMark has taken an interesting approach in its design of PathMaker, a process improvement toolkit for Windows. This well-thought-out package includes tools for organizing teams and handling meetings; brainstorming, cause-and-effect diagrams and other data-generating/organizing tools; and, of course, all the usual SPC tools. Aside from providing the basic tool set, SkyMark has given a lot of attention to details that should make its competition cringe.
PathMaker includes preconfigured pathways. These road maps step teams through the tools, meetings and data analysis required to complete a project. Pathways include: benchmarking a process, improving a process, designing a new process, strategic planning for area teams, strategic planning for organization leaders and reengineering a process. While you can easily build a pathway from scratch, in most cases you will want to take one of these existing pathways and edit it for your own application.
When you select a pathway, you are presented with a linear representation of all the steps required for a process. Clicking on a step takes you to a tool for project management, meeting support, logical thinking, creative thinking, decision making, data analysis or a training session. You can also link to any application on your computer, such as a spreadsheet.
This is by far the best of this genre of software that we have tested. The data analysis tools, for instance, go beyond simply providing the usual Pareto, histogram or control charts. For instance, you can set PathMaker to flag out-of-control conditions for either one point outside of limits, six or more consecutive points steadily increasing or decreasing, 14 or more consecutive points alternating up and down, or eight or more consecutive points on one side of the centerline. In fact, the features provided in the data analysis tools are those that you usually find in a dedicated SPC package and not on an integrated package of this sort.
The same detail was put into PathMaker's other tools as well (see sidebar). For example, the flowcharting tools, had niceties like fit symbol-to-text, move connections with symbol, and symbol alignment and spacing tools. Not to compare this with dedicated flowcharting software, but the features are very good for this type of package.
Unlike other packages we have seen, PathMaker does not create separate files for each element of the path, be it a control chart or meeting minutes. Instead, the entire process is maintained within one file. The up side is that there's one file per process. The down side is that PathMaker must be opened and the data copied and pasted if you wish to share text or diagrams with other applications. This approach wouldn't be so bad if PathMaker had the ability to generate a storyboard -- a project presentation document. SkyMark says it is considering storyboard generation for future designs.
We were extremely pleased with PathMaker's manual. All software functions are described in detail as well as their purpose within TQM. For a TQM novice, the manual provides a lot of information on the subject.
Our biggest disappointment with the manual is the lack of a how-to approach. A chapter that stepped you through a simple process would tremendously increase the manual's value and make the software a little easier to dive into.
Released early this year, PathMaker is the new kid on the block. But with its attention to detail, PathMaker will give its competition something to benchmark against. If you are looking for an integrated process improvement package, definitely check out PathMaker.