The Myth of Process Improvement

Ever since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line, the endless chase for process improvement has never ceased. In fact, it has evolved to a specialised field in it’s own right with mountains of literature dedicated to this subject, and taught at business schools and universities.

However, the question remains, what exactly is Process Improvement? Is it something that is achieved by means of automation? Or is it another KPI (Key Performance Indicators) line managers chase at the end of each month?

There are many ways of defining and while I am no expert in the science and art of process improvement, there are a few things that I am very sure isn’t part of the brood.

Splitting up your value chain into smaller pieces — While there could be valid reasons for splitting one part of the value chain into smaller parts (such as legislative requirements, cost cutting measures, or offshoring), it is NOT a process improvement. It can, be at best, labelled as a process change, but that is it. Don’t confuse splitting up the value chain as process improvement.

Shuffling from upstream to downstream, or any part of the value chain — I’m sure many of us would have similar experiences of embarking on a process improvement exercise only to find out that it was hardly one. It was more of a passing the buck down the line exercise. The elephant was still in the room and the irony was that, because of the shuffling, what could have been a minor problem at the start snowballs to great monstrosity as it travelled down the value chain.

Automation is not the end — When I was much younger, I naively thought that automation was THE ANSWER to process improvement. It wasn’t until I started working on projects of such nature did I realise how wrong I was! Automation, if not integrated properly in the end to end scheme of things becomes a stumbling block more than anything else. And before we even know it, we are dealing with a cacophony of “frankenstein-ed” stand-alone systems that pretty much operated in silo, and bridged by unproductive manual efforts. The real question that we need to ask ourselves is, are we automating to a positive net reduction of activities, or are we automating only to add another redundant, non value adding activity to the end to end process?

Knee Jerk Vs Data Driven — In the age of data and analytical tools, it is no longer a responsible act to embark on a process improvement exercise without looking at facts and data. It is tempting and easy to fall into the trap of treating outliers as chronic systemic issues and vice versa. Lean Six Sigma has a very systematic framework and methodologies for process improvement that most of us can leverage on.

The Real Process Improvement — Last but the most important one, real improvement has to come from the embracement by the people performing the tasks. We can have libraries of process documents but if it is not embraced and practiced, it amount to nothing. Henceforth, change management is a very important component of process improvement.

About Kaye
Grew up in Singapore and stood on the cusp of the internet revolution. Learnt to code in Turbo Pascal (if you know it, you’re probably as old as I am, or older). 🙂

I’m fascinated by all things digital and bear nostalgia towards childhood memories. The comforting sound of the 56K modem, the fun I had with the Nintendo PopEye Handheld, the fights with my siblings over who got to use the phone, and my original Nokia 3310 that’s still sitting somewhere in my mom’s house. Not to mention the colourful food flavours that I grew up with.

The site name originated from my mother. Every time she wanted to tell me something that I may not like, she’ll always start with “Just general talk…”. From her general talks I’ve learned, reflected, and rebutted (a lot). Caused her some (major) heartaches along the way, and still inflicting minor headaches on a regular basis.

I would love to hear your thoughts on my articles. So do connect with me and let me know what you think of my articles.! 🙂

Connect with me:
Twitter: @kayehau
Email: kaye.kk.hau(at)gmail(dot)com

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