Effective Solutions Through Partnership

Why Process Improvement Is a Never-Ending Job…Thank Goodness

Best Practices, Continuous Improvement, Innovation, Lean Six Sigma, Process Improvement, Sacramento

By Stephen Alfano, PMP, CSM

Ice cream melting. Kids whining. Anger mounting. It’s a Saturday morning in the middle of summer. The lines at the local grocery store registers are six people deep. Patrons have been moving at a glacial pace for the last 10 minutes. Many are complaining to one another. Several have begun to shout out for the store manager. The store manager is not on duty. The shift manager is—so, the bottleneck is her problem. She needs to find another way to move these customers through the queue as quickly as possible or risk seeing dozens of negative (business-killing!) reviews posted on social media. Her job is at stake. If she’s unsuccessful, then the ice cream won’t be the only thing having a meltdown.

Of course, if the shift manager has been trained or has prior experience with this type of process problem, she will undoubtedly follow the store playbook or her gut and get the shoppers on their way in no time. But, what if the store didn’t have a playbook on how to handle this kind of situation? Or what if this was the shift manager’s first day on the job?

This check-out crisis at the corner store might seem a little cliché at first. However, it is a perfect example of a real-world (real-time) business process improvement opportunity, for example…

  • An opportunity where an individual or an organization can take a bad scenario—or “use case”—and turn it into a teaching moment that will drive value for customers;
  • An opportunity that highlights how critical addressing process flow problems are to the success of any business; and
  • Perhaps most important, an opportunity that demonstrates the need for making a plan, doing what the plan prescribes, studying the results or reaction to what was done, and actively identifying and pursuing any changes to the plan to improve the process on a continuous basis.

I like to use the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle. Known as the Deming Wheel or Deming Cycle—named for Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American engineer, professor, author, and management consultant—the PDSA is an organized approach to continual learning and improving products, processes, or services.

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you are doing” ― Dr. W. Edwards Deming

Here’s how the PDSA cycle is applied:

The Plan step starts the cycle:

  1. Establish a goal or outcome.
  2. Formulate a theory or an approach to achieving the desired results.
  3. Define success criteria, including actual activities and products necessary to execute the plan itself.

Then, in the Do step:

  1. The plan is implemented.
  2. Processes are executed.
  3. Products are generated.
  4. Services are delivered.

Next comes the Study step. The results—the outcomes—of the processes, products, and services are monitored and evaluated on their effectiveness and efficiency towards meeting the customers’ expectations and needs. The entire plan is examined: Progress and success are measured as much as problems—and areas for improvement are prioritized.

The Act step brings the cycle back to the planning or drawing table. Here, data and learning gained throughout the process are used to help make informed decisions—or at the very least, adjustments in goals, approaches, and value metrics.

If executed with discipline and intentions to drive continuous improvement, the PDSA cycle can be repeated over and over to the delight of customers and managers alike in any season or business scenario.

For more insight on process improvement, check out these links:

Whether it’s at the ice cream counter or on technical project, this model for process improvement can apply! Do you have questions or comments about Process Improvement or your preferred best practices? Comment below!

About the Author: Stephen Alfano is an Organizational Change Management Consultant and Communications Expert. He has over 30 years of experience leading and managing initiatives for both private and public-sector clients. His résumé includes providing both new business and business process improvement services to Apple, American Express, AT&T, California Department of Transportation, Chevron, Entergy, Levi Strauss & Co., Louisiana Office of Tourism, Mattel, Microsoft, Novell, SONY, Sutter Health, and Wells Fargo. Stephen currently works as an Executive Consultant—PMP®, CSM® with KAI Partners, Inc., providing change management and communications expertise and project management support services on several active contracts.

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