In our previous articles, we have explained the concept of Continuous Improvement and Six Sigma methodology and its components. Today we’ll begin to explore at what a process is and how it works as used as foundation to build project works throughout the continuous improvement process.
A process is a collection of tasks, steps, or activities that are performed, usually in a specific order, and result in an end product such as a tangible good or the provision of a service. In a business, multiple processes work together to achieve organizational goals. Technically, the business or organization itself can be seen as one enormous process. For example, a law firm that handles criminal defence cases operates via a huge, complex process. Defendants and their cases enter the process. The output of the process is the result of the case: a bargain with prosecutors, a win or loss in court, or dismissal of charges prior to court.
Within the huge process that sees the defendant through to his or her outcome, there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of smaller processes. There are processes within processes. A lawyer and team of paralegals might move through the process of negotiation; a legal secretary might go through the process of setting appointments. Holding depositions, making copies, sending letters, and filing legal documents are all examples of processes. At the most detailed level, even answering the phone or typing a letter can be considered processes.
Later, we briefly introduced the idea of scope and scope creep. To define and maintain proper scope, we said that a Six Sigma team had to identify the processes that were related to a process improvement or project. In the legal firm example, a project to reduce the time it takes to set appointments would likely not include a process for filing a legal brief. To know that, however, you have to know that the legal brief process doesn’t share components with the appointment setting process.
The Four Layers of Process Definition
As you continue with the Lean Six Sigma, you’ll see that processes can be very complex. Our basic definition above is just that: Basic. Before we begin defining the components of a process, let’s peel back the layers of this concept known as “a process.”
Whether physical, digital, or ideological, every process is a series of some number of steps. You can put those steps on paper in the form of instructions—often called a standard operating procedure in a formal business training or policy document — or a visual diagram known as a process map.
A process map uses standard shapes and connections to create a map of a process that can be understood by most employees and any Six Sigma team member.
Processes all take a certain amount of time, and processing time can change with a variety of factors. Process maps and documents can only record information such as the average time a process takes or measures of variation in the processing time. This information is often noted in such documents because it provides valuable information to teams, but real-time observation of a process almost always provides better information about processing time.
A retail chain might create a process map for restocking a certain area. The process documentation notes an average time of two hours to fully restock the shelves in the defined area. In an effort to obtain more data about the process, a Six Sigma team observes employees actually performing job functions in real time at various times of day for two weeks. Some notes that come from those observations include
- Stocking in the evening takes only minutes.
- Stocking during the day is hampered by the movements of customers.
- Stocking work performed during peak shopping hours usually takes the longest.
With just this information, you can probably see an easy way to reduce stocking time in this example: move stocking duties to non-peak times when possible. Simply understanding the steps to stock the area is not enough to understand the process; you also have to gather data about process times.
Almost any process in a business will be dependent upon one or more other processes. Remember, the business itself is a series of linked processes all working toward the same goal or goals. Sometimes, interdependencies are noted on processes maps. Other times, interdependencies are resource-related.
For example, consider a very simple passenger train scenario. The train leaves station A with passengers, carrying them to station B. Before the train can leave, the engineer must be on board and prepared to operate the machine. Safety checks, clearance from the rail yard, the closing of all the doors: these are all processes that must be completed before the train leaves the station. The process of the train transporting passengers is dependent upon the completion of other processes.
- When working with processes during a Lean Six Sigma improvement project, teams must be aware of interdependencies. What does any process you are working on rely? What relies on your process? The first is important because you might need help from processes or people upstream from your process when making improvements.
- The second is important because you have to know how your improvements will impact downstream processes and people – and improvement in the performance of your process doesn’t do any good for the company or organization as a whole if it hinders the performance of the downstream process.
Resources and Alignment
Processes require resources. Like a motor vehicle requires fuel or electricity to run, a process requires resources such as power, people, cash, digital bandwidth, computer equipment, machinery, supplies, parts, and even skill. Since someone in an organization has to approve and pay for resources, project teams must understand the resources involved, the cost of those resources, and the owners of the processes and resources in question so they can make appropriate requests about needing additional resources.