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Benchmarking, Continuous Improvement, Problem Solving, Process Improvement

Continuous improvement: tools and techniques are not enough

I’ve been running some leadership development workshops over the past few months where the focus has been on making Continuous Improvement a way of life. Many of the people on the programme are familiar with approaches such as Lean or Six Sigma; some have even been trained to use the tools.

What I find really interesting is that most of them don’t understand that tools and techniques on their own are inadequate. What they seem to have missed is the need for a “process” within which to apply the tools. So, it comes as something of a revelation to them when we spend as much time talking about the range of processes available, as we do on the tools.

CI_processesWhen I was learning about CI, there were three core improvement processes that we used:

  • A Problem Solving process
  • A Process Improvement process
  • A Benchmarking process

You need all three, but which one you choose depends on (a) what you’re trying to achieve and (b) how “mature” your CI approach is.

Problem Solving is the baseline approach all organisations need. It is used to “put out the fires” and get some stability by eliminating special causes of variation. Both DMAIC and PDCA can be used for root cause problem solving and they start with a Problem Definition statement. Kepner Tregoe is another of the well-known approaches. Problem Solving typically focuses on improving efficiency (doing more things right).

Process Improvement is used to focus on improving effectiveness (doing the right things), driven by customer requirements. DMAIC (from 6 Sigma) is probably the best known approach, but A3 Thinking (from Lean), BPR and BPM are others. Process Improvement helps address common causes of variation. It starts with a Process Definition statement (such as a SIPOC).

Benchmarking is an improvement approach typically used to achieve step change and, as such, is more suitable for organisations that are experienced and more mature in their CI thinking. When applied by less mature organisations, it is usually little more than “industrial tourism” (you show me yours and I’ll show you mine). Benchmarking can be applied at three levels:

  • Metrics (tells you “what” others are achieving)
  • Process (tells you “how” they achieve it)
  • Organisation (tells you “why” they achieve it)

Each of these three CI processes provides a framework within which a range of tools and techniques can be applied. The tools make the framework useful; tools on their own, really aren’t much use.

The really skilled organisations recognise which CI process they need to apply to improve performance and teach their people how to use it and which tools will be helpful. They do not sheep-dip people in tools and techniques training!

Read more about the support I provide my clients to implement Continuous Improvement.

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