In this episode, Business Process Consultant Brian Hunt shares with us his approach to starting a business process improvement initiative and some simple tools you can use to get started.

Brian Hunt, CBAP is a Business Process Consultant specializing in business process improvement and simplification initiatives. Brian is a 6 Sigma Black Belt and believes that achieving simplicity in business processes is the most effective way to reduce waste and enable an organization to respond to market opportunities and threats.

After listening to this episode, you will understand:

  • How to start a business improvement initiative
  • The right people to talk to to discover improvement opportunities
  • Simple techniques and shortcuts to identifying areas to improve
  • What a wombat has to do with process improvement


Show Notes

Starting Out
When starting a process improvement project, it’s important to discover if you are looking at a symptom or causes. Also, understand what the sponsor wants – a quick fix or systemic change. A systemic change requires a much higher level of leadership support than a quick fix.

Assuming that you have full support of the initiative, you need to know how that processes connects to upstream and downstream process and how it fits in with other processes in the organization. To get a view of how processes interrelate, Brian uses IDEF0/IDEF3 models.


Why is Process Improvement Needed?
As an organization grows, processes become more complicated. Informal processes stop working properly and you get workarounds and undocumented processes without consistency. To address process improvement, we need to:

  1. Find the current processes – Identifying workarounds and undocumented procedures
  2. Classify and catalog the processes – Identify what they are and where they fit
  3. Evaluate the processes – Identify which processes are not needed, which are duplicated, what needs to work better, and what needs to be created
  4. Correct processes as needed and connect them all together for the organization

As you go through the processes, you need to create a common business language. Finding duplication and improvement opportunities will be very difficult without a common language.


Identify Opportunities
To identify inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement, you need to speak with the people performing the process and identify pain points. One technique you can use to uncover the root cause of the inefficiencies is the Five Whys technique in which you seek to understand why each step in a causal chain is happening. Often the true root cause is uncovered in three whys.


Take Action
Once the problem or inefficiency has been uncovered, we need to take action. Create an action plan that notes the problems that were found, the planned actions to address each problem, who will be responsible for carrying out that action, and by when. Make the action visible by publishing in to the company intranet or some other means.

If you can make the issues raised by the front line workers visible and can show that they are being listened to, that will encourage more people to submit their own issues and suggestions.

Research by Sidney Yoshida in “The Iceberg of Ignorance”, concluded that 100% of the problems are known by the employees at the bottom of the organization, 74% of problems are known by supervisors, 9% are known by middle management, and only 4% of an organization’s front line problems are known by top management. That means that 96% of the problems within an organization are invisible to top management, which is unsettling because many improvement initiatives originate at the top of the organization.


A SIPOC is a simple yet powerful tool to understand the process inputs, outputs, and people impacted. SIPOC stands for Suppliers, Inputs, Process, Outputs, and Customers. It helps you to understand how the output from one process or step can be an input to the next step. This model can help you understand the internal customer/supplier relationship. Understanding the inputs and outputs needed helps you to understand what is needed and by whom.

It may also help you to identify non-value added (waste) inputs, steps, or outputs. A SIPOC can also help you to understand impacts or a change made to any part of the model. Brian frequently uses color coding in his SIPOC. He uses red, yellow, or green to indicate the quality of that SIPOC stge.


Technique: TPN Analysis
Once problems are identified, you may discover that some changes can be made by front line employees while other changes require approval from the leadership team. To decide what can be done, use a TPN (Totally, Partially, Not) Analysis to determine if the change is totally, partially, or not within the control of the department.


Decide Which Changes to Implement
Brian recommends creating a spreadsheet of the change ideas and developing a mind map. From there, you can create clusters and identify duplication or common processes so that you can address multiple issues at once.


Tool: Value Stream Mapping
Value Stream Mapping takes the process flow from left to right and shows all activities in the process that are either adding value or not adding value. Non-value adding activities may include rework, going back to the customer for more information, waiting time, and other activities that do not bring value to the customer. Often, a value stream map will include timing or duration for each activity. This helps you to identify opportunities for improvement.

Brian’s simple approach to value stream mapping starts with mapping the process flow from left to right including a horizontal line. He maps the process using Post-It notes and places value adding activities above the horizontal line and non-value adding activities below the line.


Technique: WOMBAT
WOMBAT stands for Waste Of Money, Brians, and Time and is an approach to Brianstorm to identify areas of waste. Begin by asking people to silently write on Post-It notes all of the issues that get in the way of them being able to work efficiently. This allows you to quickly identify improvement opportunities.

After you have gathered the Post-It notes, cluster them into affinity groups (grouping related items together) and label each grouping. This also works as a good mental warm-up before process mapping. The items can be tagged to the appropriate step in the process map.

Brian’s tips to make WOMBAT better: Managers should not be included in the Brianstorming as this could inhibit sharing of some ideas. Also, participants should write in all capital letters. This makes it easier to photograph the output and also disguises handwriting.


Brian’s Tip to See Results Right Away
Start building a common business language and share it throughout the organization on the company’s intranet.

The key for successful process improvement projects is to keep it simple and keep it visible.


What’s Your Take?
Do you have any tips or suggestions for business process improvement projects?  Please share in the comments below.


Links mentioned in this episode

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