Process improvement is a critical function of any evolving organization. The term process improvement tools refers to the techniques and methods that organizations use to practice process improvement.
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The vast majority of process improvement tools in use today are derived from Lean and Six Sigma methodologies. Lean is a business methodology that promotes the flow of value to the customer through two guiding tenets: continuous improvement and respect for people. Six Sigma is a methodical, structured approach to tackling organizational problems by eliminating variability and reducing risk.
Although these process improvement tools have roots in these methodologies, you don’t have to be practicing Lean, Agile, Six Sigma, or another methodology in order to use them.
Why Use Process Improvement Tools
Within every organization, there are hundreds or even thousands of processes that teams follow to plan, execute, and deliver their work. Whether you’re onboarding a new employee, fulfilling a customer order, or developing a new feature for your product, you likely follow a process.
In order to consistently meet the demands of customers in an ever-evolving world, organizations have to be able to evolve those processes. But understanding how to improve existing processes, and how to implement those changes successfully, is a process in itself.
Without some structure or framework for how to map out, analyze, and improve upon our processes, it can be difficult to affect real change or know where to begin. This is where process improvement tools can be helpful.
Process improvement tools provide us with a systematic approach to improving our processes.
There are three main categories of process improvement tools:
- Tools used for process mapping
- Tools used to solve problems
- Tools used to improve processes
Process mapping tools, such as value stream mapping, are used to define each of the steps in our processes.
Problem solving tools, such as a cause and effect analysis or the 5 Whys, are meant to help you get to the root cause of a problem and identify potential solutions.
Finally, tools meant to improve processes are just that: Tools to take an existing process, and make it faster, more efficient, etc.
In order to select the right tool for you, it’s important to first know what your goals are for the particular process you are looking to improve.
If you don’t already have a clear understanding of each of the steps in your process, you will likely want to start with one of the process mapping tools. Even if you do have one type of process map, you might find another process mapping tool to be even more insightful for your particular process.
Process mapping is one of the most critical process improvement tools: Because you can’t understand how to improve your process if you don’t have a clear understanding of your process. There are several types of process mapping tools that can be used to improve your existing processes.
Before selecting a process mapping tool, consider what exactly you’re needing to map out: Is it the flow of deliverables from point A to B? Is it the process of turning raw inventory into physical products?
Perhaps you want to understand each of the roles and responsibilities of the people involved in a particular process, to enable better capacity management. Maybe you’re looking to understand how value flows through your organization. Consider exactly what part of your process you’re looking to map out before selecting one of these process mapping tools.
A SIPOC diagram is a Six Sigma tool used for documenting business processes. It provides a birds’ eye view of everything involved in a process or set of processes: Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, and Customers.
To create a SIPOC diagram, start by creating a column in a table with each of the following labels:
Then, work with your team to fill in each of the columns for the process you’re trying to map out.
A process flowchart is exactly how it sounds: A chart that uses bubbles, boxes, and arrows to illustrate how work flows through your process.
A process flowchart can be helpful for outlining the exact steps in a process, including when the process begins and ends. It can be used to standardize the steps and sequence of events in a process.
Value stream mapping
Value stream mapping is a tool used to visualize the flow of value in an organization or team. Unlike the rest of the process improvement tools listed here, value stream mapping typically happens at the organizational level (although it can be used at the team level as well).
Value stream mapping is often one of the first steps that organizations undergo when implementing Lean, because it helps to frame the organization’s activities in terms of value creation: Where is value created? Who is involved in the creation of value?
Often, organizations use value stream mapping as a way to restructure their organization around value creation – moving away from functional teams (marketing, sales, etc.) and towards a cross-functional team structure.
A swimlane diagram is a process mapping tool that defines the roles and responsibilities of each of the people involved in a process. Using the metaphor of lanes in a swimming pool, a swimlane diagram is meant to offer clarity around roles and responsibilities by placing process steps within the swimlanes of a particular person, team, or department.
A swimlane diagram is similar to a flowchart in that it uses bubbles, rectangles, and arrows to represent steps in a process. The difference between a flowchart and a swimlane diagram is that the swimlane diagram takes it one step further, by adding in information about who is responsible for each of those steps.
Cause and effect analysis / fishbone diagram
A cause and effect analysis is as it sounds: Analyzing the impact of certain actions or activities on others. One of the process improvement tools used for problem solving is a fishbone diagram, also called an Ishikawa diagram.
This tool is a specific type of cause and effect analysis that helps teams brainstorm potential causes of a specific problem. Rather than simply saying, “Why is X happening?”, a fishbone diagram frames the question as, “Is X happening because of Y, Z, A, B…?”
The fishbone diagram gets its name from the structure of the diagram, which loosely resembles a fish’s skeleton. The problem is the fish’s head, and the causes for that problem make up its spine and bones.
Thinking about the various categories of reasons why something might be happening can help us uncover causes we might not have considered before. It can also help to identify potential issues before they actually happen: Some teams will use a fishbone diagram when developing a new product or starting a project to make sure they are considering all potential issues before they arise.
The 5 Whys is among several process improvement tools that can be used for problem solving. Whereas a fishbone diagram encourages divergent thinking, the 5 Whys helps teams zero in on a specific root cause for the problem they’re trying to solve.
The 5 Whys is a simple concept: When a problem occurs, ask the question “Why?” as many times as necessary until you reveal an answer.
Although the name of this tool suggests asking the question five times, this is merely a suggestion – you might uncover your answer after three, or it might require more than five. The point is not to ask “Why?” exactly five times, but to ask it enough times that you get to the root of your problem.
The answer to each additional “Why?” helps teams drill down a bit further, until both the nature of the problem becomes clear. It’s important to first make sure that you have clearly identified the problem before beginning this or other process improvement tools focused on problem solving.
The 5 Whys can often be helpful in troubleshooting things like product issues, general problem solving, quality control, or process improvement. The process works well for simple to moderately complex problems, but it is less effective for complex or critical problems.
The A3 process is a problem-solving tool Toyota developed to foster learning, collaboration, and personal growth in employees. The term “A3” is derived from the particular size of paper used to outline ideas, plans, and goals throughout the A3 process (A3 paper is also known as 11” x 17” or B-sized paper).
The A3 process allows teams to actively collaborate on the purpose, goals, and strategy of a project or process improvement activity in a systematic way. Together, teams fill out each of the fields of the A3. This process encourages meaningful discussion and ensures that all aspects of a project or problem are addressed.
Once the A3 is completed, it can be used as a guide to the project and as a way for teams to ensure that they are completing the work as planned.
You can learn more about A3s and other process improvement tools in our article, A3 and Problem Solving.
While our first two categories of tools help to map out processes and identify and solve problems, our third category of process improvement tools specifically focuses on improving processes.
Error-proofing / Poka-Yoke
Error-proofing, or poka-yoke, is a process improvement tool rooted in Lean manufacturing. Poka-yoke is a Japanese term referring to any mechanism in a process or product that helps a person prevent mistakes.
If you drive a car, you’ve experienced error-proofing in action: For example, if you try to turn off your ignition without first putting your car in “park,” your car will sound a warning noise until you have shifted into park. Many tools with rotating blades will not operate unless all safety measures are in place – for example, a high-speed blender that will not operate unless the top is securely on. All of these are examples of error-proofing.
The same principle can be applied to process design and process improvement. If you have a process, or a step in your process, that is prone to user error, you might have an opportunity to conduct some error-proofing. What can you automate or build into the design of your process that would help to avoid human error?
5S is another of several process improvement tools from the world of Lean manufacturing. It’s a step-by-step method for organizing, cleaning, and maintaining orderly working environments to maximize efficiency, improve safety, and reduce waste.
Although 5S was originally designed to maintain order over physical work spaces (in manufacturing environments), the concepts can also be applied to knowledge work.
In their original Japanese, the five steps of the 5S system each begin with the letter S, which is where the system gets its name: Seiri, Seiton, Seiso, Seiketsu, Shitsuke.
Conveniently enough, when translated into English, these terms also happen to begin with the letter S:
- Sort (remove any unnecessary materials)
- Set in order (arrange materials so they are easy to find and access)
- Shine (clean the workspace regularly)
- Standardize (make the previous three Ss a standard routine)
- Sustain (institute regular audits)
Among the process improvement tools we’ve listed here, 5S is the only one that focuses specifically on reducing waste in the environment where you work. If you do work in a physical workspace, such as a manufacturing floor, then you can use the 5S to maintain an orderly physical workspace.
If you are in knowledge work, you can still use the 5S to maintain an orderly virtual workspace.
For example, you can use these concepts to:
- Maintain the efficacy of your team’s Kanban board
- Ensure that your team’s documentation system is well-maintained
- Clean out your organization’s Slack workspace of unused channels and threads
Taking the steps to maintain a clean, orderly, and organized workspace can boost efficiency, reduce waste, and make it easier for your team to get work done.
The PDCA cycle is one of the process improvement tools used to operationalize continuous improvement. It is a helpful framework for managing any process improvement activity.
PDCA stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act (sometimes Plan-Do-Check-Adjust) and provides a holistic framework for identifying and solving problems quickly. Included in the PDCA cycle are the following steps:
- Plan for a specific goal
- Do the work required by that plan
- Check the results of the work
- Act / Adjust to fix any unsatisfactory results
Some teams include an “O” step (for Observe) at the beginning of the PDCA cycle – so, OPDCA. This is to emphasize the need to fully understand the current realities of a situation before beginning to brainstorm solutions.
PDCA is intended to be a cyclical process–a four-step loop (or five, if you include the O step) that is repeated continuously.
We’re discussing it here as an approach for managing process improvement activities, but it can also be helpful when:
- Starting a new improvement project
- Developing a new process, product, or service
- Defining a repetitive work process
- Implementing any change
- Implementing continuous improvement
PDCA is to Lean what DMAIC is to Six Sigma: a systematic, step-by-step approach to improving processes. Although this is one of the process improvement tools typically used in Six Sigma, it can be used by any team looking to improve its processes.
DMAIC stands for:
- Define: Define the problem or opportunity for improvement
- Measure: Measure process performance (process mapping is often a part of this step)
- Analyze: Analyze the process to determine root causes of poor performance
- Improve: Implement improvements to address and eliminate root causes
- Control: Control the improved process and monitor the process for future improvement opportunities
Many of the process improvement tools we’ve already discussed are used as part of the DMAIC process. For example, process mapping is typically part of the Measure step of DMAIC. Root cause analysis, such as fishbone analysis, happens during the Analyze phase. Methods for maintaining control over processes, such as 5S, are part of the Control phase.
Process improvement tools provide us with a systematic approach to improving our processes. Whether you need to map out your process, uncover the root cause of a problem, or implement a more systematic approach to your process improvement efforts, there is a process improvement tool for you.