Companies and organizations that have existed for a long time perform tasks via processes that often are undocumented and not fully understood. Whether it's a simple cleaning task that is costly over time or analyzing large manufacturing or business enterprises, looking at examples of process improvement in other organizations can trigger insights into how your own enterprise operates.
Basic Process Improvement
One aspect of process improvement programs is identifying the root causes of problems. This is called root cause analysis. The website Management for the Rest of Us cites an example of root cause analysis in a city government setting.
In this example, the city was spending too much on cleaning bird droppings from a bronze statue in the park. The city tried different coatings to make the cleaning faster and easier. It tried noise generators to scare the birds away. When the city suffered a power outage in the park for several days, personnel tasked with cleaning the statue noticed that there were fewer droppings on the statue. After analysis, management decided to switch the lights for the statue on later in the evening. This policy resulted in fewer bird droppings and faster, more efficient cleanings. The lights at dusk were attracting insects, on which birds feed. By modifying the lighting schedule, they attracted fewer insects around the statue during the birds' natural feeding time, resulting in fewer bird droppings on the statue.
The International Society for Performance Improvement cites an example of a process improvement in a telephone company. The improvement was in the company's 500-person accounting department, which processed 3.5 million telephone bills per month in two accounting centers. The process improvement goal was to reduce billing costs.
When managers created cross-functional flow charts of the various processes, a number of problems appeared in the process of dealing with bounced checks. Analysis showed that the two centers used different processes to handle bounced checks. These process differences indicated that a central, automated system could reduce processing times and workloads in the two centers. Analysis of the existing and revised processes also identified situations where the accounting department was performing tasks that should be, and in actuality were, performed by other departments, thus increasing costs due to duplicate effort.
As part of a process re-engineering effort, a large manufacturer created flow-chart process diagrams of the different factory functions and then created cross-functional process diagrams. When looking at the way assemblers replenished buckets of fasteners, the managers discovered that each assembler would notice that the bucket was low, carry the bucket to a central location and refill the bucket before returning to the assembly station. Each assembler filled his bucket every two to three days and took five to 10 minutes to complete the task. Each assembler was taking the equivalent of 1 1/2 to two workdays per year to refill his fastener supply. With thousands of assemblers, the cumulative total of lost assembly time was equal to about a dozen employees being idle over the year. By investing in a large cart to carry fasteners, an employee to push the cart and a system of yellow cards to indicate that an assembler was low on fasteners, the company saved nearly $500,000 per year in lost time.
Although he grew up in Latin America, Mr. Ma is a writer based in Denver. He has been writing since 1987 and has written for NPR, AP, Boeing, Ford New Holland, Microsoft, RAHCO International, Umax Data Systems and other manufacturers in Taiwan. He studied creative writing at Mankato State University in Minnesota. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, English and reads Spanish.