For the past forty years, I have witnessed many different solutions to improve business effectiveness – nearly as many as the get-rich-quick or easy-dieting approaches. They all appear to fall into two categories: there is the miracle tool (which will solve all your problems, but never really works as well in the real world as it did in the demo version) and there is a new process.
In some circles, the concept of process is considered as something evil. In many Agile software development centres, when I say “process”, people tend to reach immediately for their crucifixes, garlic cloves and wooden stakes. A process is simply the series of actions to translate something into something else. The process of boiling water translates water into steam. It is not documented or bureaucratic, but is demonstrated, accepted and measured – with variations: we know the different temperatures required to boil water at different altitudes. Process does not mean strict rules.
When we talk about process improvement, we are talking about making work practices more efficient, in other words, how can we increase their value in relationship to their cost? That is all we are talking about, nothing more complex than that.
Over the years, as different groups have sought to clarify the concept of process improvement, they have used models and standards and techniques and theories and rules… they have frequently forgotten the meaning or the purpose of the improvement programme and instead have focused on respecting a model, a standard’s rules rather than benefiting the business. Many of their clients (their victims?) have learned that process means bureaucracy and documentation, measurements and rules and a lot of additional work with no obvious added value. It is time to recapture the concept and put it into context.
The only value of any process improvement model is how much to assist you in reducing the cost of your quality related activities: how much does it help you improve the quality of your products, your services, the level of satisfaction of your customers and your staff members, while at the same time, reducing the cost related to the work practices: time, effort, errors, stress, money.
There has been growing confusion over process improvement as it has come to be seen as an appraisal, assessment or audit tool, not a tool for business efficiency. Models and standards have multiplied, from CMM to ISO, different models, with overlapping content have been developed specifically for regional markets (Europe vs North American) or industries (automotive, service, etc.). The focus appears to have been placed firmly on satisfying standards, applying the checklists and insisting on the things that differentiate us rather than on the obvious overlaps and redundancies.
Process improvement is basically entirely dependent on having a clear understanding of what we mean by improvement: what is the definition of quality, of productivity or creativity which we want to use within our own organization? How do we plan on achieving a higher level of quality without making the workload heavier or more challenging? Once that aspect has been understood, whichever model or standard you decide to use should only be a checklist to make you wonder whether you have missed an aspect.
Probably the most difficult aspect of this approach is understanding the word “quality”. I am frequently speaking to organizations who like to talk about quality, but have no clear idea as to what this actually means. When asked about measurement, the traditional response is that they measure time to market and costs, however, whey I ask whether they would agree that cheap and fast is high-quality, they reject this idea, insisting that it is something else, something to which they are striving but cannot define or measure, and therefore will never know if they are approaching it.
So the first step for any process improvement effort must be to define the objectives in measurable, achievable terms, put that in relationship to a baseline measurement. This will allow the creation of an improvement programme. The objective of your improvement programme is not to satisfy a standard or model, it is to make your business more effective, more efficient, more... Perhaps CMMI will help you, perhaps ITIL, ISO, TickITplus, Spice or any of hundreds of other standards and models will help you, but you must first understand what it is you are trying to achieve.
Process improvement is simply changing your work habits and patterns in order to align them to your business objectives. Q:PIT Ltd is happy to help in organizing workshops for senior management to help define their business objectives in quantitative terms and focus on understanding the relationships and causes between what they are doing and what is going wrong.