The Key to Continuous Process Improvement Projects

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Continuous process improvement projects (CIP) are a good way to better a process that needs more than a minor tweak. That said, before you dive into the CIP pool, consider whether doing the process improvement project makes sense in the big-picture direction your agency wants to head.

You can liken CIP to pulling a wagon: A squeaky wheel can get greased, ignored or sometimes replaced. The right choice depends on the planned use for the wagon.

Kids grow up and wagons grow old. Our needs change, technology changes, things wear out and sometimes it just isn’t cool to pull an old wagon. In these cases, you don’t grease the wheel, you replace or go without the wagon instead. Maybe the wagon is best repurposed as a planter.

Most agencies have a process that produces an irritating “squeak” every time it is used. Before deciding to spend significant resources improving that process, take the time to make a strategic decision about the bigger picture that process is a part of. Is it time for the organization to no longer do the thing for which the process is used?  Is it time to bring in new technology that would make the process obsolete? You get the idea.

The fix, replace or ignore decision can be facilitated by calling a meeting with the stated goal of discussing the options before approving a CIP. Be straightforward and direct. Based on the direction the agency is heading, does it make more sense to improve the process, implement new technology – so the process is no longer needed – or do little/nothing and live with a poor process?  The meeting need not be long or terribly formal.

Who should be invited to this strategic meeting? My advice is to invite people who are good at seeing the big picture and at least one person who embodies one or more of the following qualities:

  • Interfaces with elected officials and or the public
  • Is knowledgeable about your agency’s technology
  • Is familiar with the agency budget
  • Does or has actually done the process in question

The following cautionary tale actually happened, but not exactly this way. Situations like it happen all of the time.

The agency’s process for reporting by regulated parties was notoriously cumbersome. Everyone wanted it improved. We got an e-mail from the Assistant Agency Director stating consultants were retained to conduct a CIP project to improve the process in question.

Our senior manager addressed the subsequent CIP session with words like: “excited,” “energy,” “you are the experts,” “please participate fully," – and you get the idea. There were whiteboards, flip pads, markers, muffins, large post-it note pads and more. It was a great session of brainstorming, listing, prioritizing, discussing, summarizing, confirming, reporting out, memorializing, thank you for participation, you guys were great and the like.

The result was:

  • The wording on the form should be clarified.
  • The forms will be e-mailed in rather than snail-mailed.
  • One of the three approval signatures is eliminated.

We guesstimated the revised process would reduce processing time by 25 percent. The CIP session did what it was asked to do, however, it did not do what the sponsors of the session  – Assistant Director and Senior Manager – hoped it would accomplish.

In a budget meeting several months before the CIP session, elected officials and management briefly discussed this notorious process that almost all stakeholders hated. Someone had suggested replacing the current snail-mail process with a new online reporting system that would improve both flexibility and control. Everyone in the room nodded in agreement and the hearing proceeded to a different topic.

Based on that brief mention, the agency’s strategic plan was modified to include: “The agency will endeavor to maximize flexibility and control by taking advantage of new technologies where practical."

The consultants were then retained to repair the process. Prior to retaining the consultants, it would have been better to hold a “big picture” meeting to briefly discuss whether the goal should be to repair, replace or do little or nothing to the process. The session should have been about replacing the technology.

A couple of weeks later, I am standing in a long line to pay for my lunch. In front of me was the manager who sponsored the CIP project. I told him it was a good session. He nodded and asked, “What would it take to replace the whole process with a new an online app?” We chatted for a minute and I told him that I would write up a request to the technical team to consider the feasibility of an online system.

The new online system works well. It took twice as long as I thought it would and cost more than I ever thought it could. The stakeholders like it much better. The manager now gives me a nod when we pass in the corridor.

The experience re-enforced the importance of calling a meeting to discuss the big picture before deciding what to do about a squeaky process. BTW: Besides improving processes, CIP sessions are excellent team- building experiences. A person like me might end up feeling comfortable enough to have a meaningful discussion with someone way above their pay grade in a lunch line.

Paul Leegard is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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