Process improvement is the act of increasing the value of a process’s output in the eyes of its customers.
Putting this into a business perspective, we can view a business as a collection of processes that focus upon providing an output that its customer’s are willing to pay for. Therefore, the objective of a business process is to add value to a collection of inputs, from a customer perspective, to produce a profit to the business. Consider the following, simplified, value equation.
Profit = Perceived Value – Inherent Value
Below are some examples of potential projects. Some are good process improvement project ideas and some are not.
1. The installation of a new process or piece equipment that has already been selected.
Answer: This is not a good project idea. The decision about what to do has already been made.
2. Call center cycle time improvement.
Answer: This is a good project idea. It involves the improvement of an existing process. It may need further scope narrowing (Type of phone calls, for example).
3. Development of a new ad campaign.
The Six Sigma process improvement methodology has 5 steps. Corporately, they are called the DMAIC (da*may*ic) process. The steps, also called phases, are Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, and Control. A process improvement team moves through these phases by meeting specific objectives (Tollgates or milestones). In reality, the team’s progress through the methodology is cyclic in nature. A Six Sigma project may need to go through one or more of the steps repeatedly in an effort to get to the root cause of a problem and eliminate it.
Beyond the analysis of processes, a successful improvement initiative becomes a business philosophy that changes it’s culture and value system. By listening to the voice of the customer, a business can find exactly what the customer wants and design the products and services that meet their expectations. Expectations are not limited to quality. Customers also have expectations of functionality, appearance, safety, etc. You have to listen carefully to your customers to know what they are looking for. When these expectations are known, the business can partner with their customers, creating a closed loop in the relationship. A business accomplishes this by aligning its values and strategies with the expectations of its customers.
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Not all business problems lend themselves to the Six Sigma process improvement methodologies, especially those that have short time lines. There are many problems that business leadership understand and should just fix. A Six Sigma improvement project typically requires one to six months for a team to complete, depending upon the complexity and scope of the problem. This is longer than acceptable for some problems. In addition, many of the tools used in Six Sigma do not apply well to problems that are not process based. Examples of these would be emergencies and relationship issues. Process improvement tools apply better to up-front planning for these situations, than to the situations themselves.
A successful Six Sigma process improvement initiative is not a program or a set of tools. It is a cultural shift. In other words, Six Sigma changes the way a business manages itself. This is a shift away from decisions based solely upon “tribal knowledge” (gut feeling, we have always done it this way, etc.), to decisions based on data and business acumen. When the data is customer focused, improvement projects align corporate strategies with customer expectations in a way that produces a positive financial impact. It is important to understand that data, “tribal knowledge”, and business acumen are all required for high quality decision making.
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