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A Process Improvement Plan and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement

By:  Scott Jessup 

Once a process improvement plan has been implemented, it’s vital to systematically look for opportunities to improve business and operational processes. Taking an organized approach to identifying opportunities for improvement can help an organization meet its goals for increasing profits, reducing costs, and accelerating innovation.

The foundation of continuous improvement is a cycle of capturing opportunities for improvement, implementing them, measuring the impact, and then sharing the knowledge with appropriate stakeholders.

What defines ideal opportunities for continuous improvement? Any process being considered for improvement should align with business goals and deliver a measurable return-on-investment (ROI). That means identifying key performance indicators (KPIs) that can be associated with each process, such as increased worker safety, improved product quality, reduced waste and costs, and always enhanced customer satisfaction. 

Equally important (especially in manufacturing) is the ability for the improved process to drive further innovation – to act as a potential catalyst for other improvements. A process improvement plan should throw the doors wide open on novel approaches to any and all processes. While simple tweaking may yield perfectly satisfactory results, don’t be afraid to re-imagine a process or eliminate it altogether if it doesn’t add value or there is something more efficient and effective available to replace it.

What does it take to create an effective process improvement plan? Here are four fundamental tasks:

Identify opportunities for improvement
The first step in any process improvement plan is to identify processes that are both appropriate for improvement and in need of it. This is not just a task for management. It’s crucial to encourage input from all employees, especially those intimate with the processes you’re looking to improve. For example, workers on the plant floor who work closely with manufacturing processes on a daily basis, or office workers spending too much time  inputting customer orders, creating orders for raw materials, planning and organizing the flow of work and materials through the facility. Equally important is the input from workers tasked with maintaining equipment to ensure they have the tools and materials needed to properly schedule and maintain the equipment necessary to turn raw materials in finished, sellable goods.  If you haven’t implemented a standard process for capturing improvement, now’s the time. This should include small, tactical improvements that affect daily operations as well as larger, strategic ones that may relate to overall business goals. Understanding where improvement opportunities are found and who’s finding them will help you determine the impact of your CI program and process improvement plan across the enterprise. At the same time, you must also understand how even the smallest improvement initiative will affect upstream or downstream processes. Remember, all processes will interact with others at some point. 

Implement those opportunities
Any opportunities for improvement that have been identified need to be analyzed and prioritized to allocate appropriate resources to effect change. This is the critical point where companies and their CI teams need to put their money where their mouth is. CI studies have shown that enterprises with successful cultures of continuous improvement implement at least 80 percent of identified process improvements. Sometimes a specific process improvement plan is substantially changed in the course of implementation to facilitate a more efficient path to improvement, but change eventually gets implemented. Tracking that implementation rate is a good way to evaluate and adjust your overall process improvement plan to ensure your culture of change remains alive and well.

Measure, repeat
Analytics are the cornerstone of any business process improvement plan. Without employing metrics to determine results and gauge program success or failure, any continuous improvement undertaking is just a shot in the dark. Be sure that any metrics employed address all levels of the organization and align with your business structure as well as the culture that you want to breed.

Utilizing analytics to measure results will go a long way in demonstrating CI effectiveness. When the positive impact of even the smallest process improvement can clearly be shown to employees, it will improve engagement and help maintain the continuous improvement cycle.  

Other important metrics are engagement and activity levels to reveal the depth and breadth of your change culture, enabling you to identify and address improvement process bottlenecks before they become roadblocks.

Once an improvement has made it through the first three stages of the process improvement cycle, the results, impact, and knowledge gained should be shared across the organization. The benefits are many, including the ability to utilize ideas implemented in one part of the organization to help improve other parts, compounding their effect and ensuring maximum positive impact. 

With focus and commitment, a process improvement plan becomes self-sustaining as success inspires greater engagement at all levels, and a culture of continuous improvement spreads throughout the enterprise, touching every process.