Continuous Improvement -- The Need For Standard Work

May 11, 2007
It's virtually impossible to improve a process that is a series of random activities.

I recently worked with a group of office people in a nonprofit organization on a kaizen event to improve their internal processes. It's remarkable what you discover when you conduct one of these sessions.

This office has multiple products that it provides to its clients, so we started by working to develop the current-state value stream map of the fulfillment process for its largest product line. What became very clear in the discussion was that there was no standard work in place in the office -- people were just doing what they thought was "right" without any documented process to follow. Unfortunately, this is a common problem in many organizations.

As many of you already know from your continuous-improvement activities in manufacturing operations, it's virtually impossible to improve a process that is a series of random activities. This is just as true in the office and administrative processes as it is on the shop floor. What the group I was working with discovered was that the lack of a defined process led to a lot of delays, rework and quality issues. After considerable time spent talking through the process, we finally arrived at an "average" process that we could use to develop a current-state value stream map so we could begin brainstorming a future-state map.

The process we went through further illustrates the futility of trying to continuously improve a random process. Without documented standard work, your continuous-improvement activities are like trying to form a blob of semi-liquid material into a set shape. As soon as you push on it in one area, it oozes out in some other random area and you get nowhere.

When you start working on an improvement activity, whether on the shop floor or in some other functional area of the enterprise, make sure you have a documented process to start with. If one doesn't exist, the first order of business for the improvement team is to create one, using the inputs from everyone currently doing the work. You need to know how things are actually being done, not how someone thinks it is. Once you have this starting point, you can create your current-state map and begin to identify your opportunities for improvement to eliminate the non-value adding waste in the process.

With the group I was working with, once we had defined the "average" process and created a current-state map, we were able to proceed and brainstorm a future-state map. Like any kaizen event, we were able to make some immediate improvements and then generate an action item list with responsibilities and due dates to implement the process improvements. This would not have been possible if we had not started by first documenting the "average" process that the whole team agreed to. Once the new process is in place, it will be documented for everyone to follow and then they will have a starting point for their future continuous improvement projects.

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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