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Identifying opportunities in process improvement

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If process improvement were a crime, would there be enough evidence to have you convicted beyond reasonable doubt?

When we talk about, and when we do, process improvement, we suffer from a seemingly inevitable human tendency to focus on problems, and on issues of poor process performance. If challenged, we might say that we mean, of course, “problems and opportunities”—but that aspiration is seldom sustained in practice.

It is no longer enough, if it ever was, to focus exclusively on immediate process performance issues (cost, time, defects, etc.) and ignore opportunities for improvement. Henry Ford reduced the time it took to build a Model T chassis from 12½ hours to 1½ hours. That was a prodigious feat, but would have been pointless if no one wanted to buy a car. In 1976, with a 90% share of the US market, Eastman Kodak was ubiquitous; by the late 1990s it was struggling, and by 2012 it was in bankruptcy protection. Despite having invented the core technology used in digital cameras, Kodak was too slow to react to a serious decline in photographic film sales. At its peak, Kodak also had a great story to tell about increasing operational cost-efficiency and process improvement. In reality, though, it became efficient at producing a product few wanted, and good at delivering services few customers needed. We are impressed, or at least intrigued, by the disruptive influence of concepts and companies like Uber, but there is no reason to assume that such companies are themselves immune to disruption. In these times where the unthinkable and unexpected quickly become unexceptional, and where established business models are overwhelmed by digital substitutes, every organization must expect to have its own ‘Kodak moment’.
(HT to Michael Rosemann for the Kodak reference).

Just because a process has no reported or measured problems does not mean that it can’t be improved. The need for process improvement will often be performance-driven, but it might also be innovation-driven (triggered by an idea), or impact-driven (triggered by a strategic goal).

Airlines and airports are addressing the ‘problem’ of having travelers efficiently queue for check-in in a way that has nothing to do with improved queue management. It is now possible, in many cases, to check in with a simple wave of a card or the use of a fingerprint. Soon, perhaps, the fact that your smart phone (or the RFID tag implanted in you) has entered the building will be enough to automatically check you in. The original problem of creating smarter queues is made redundant by eliminating those queues through the innovative use of technology and different ways of thinking about process opportunities. A narrow, traditional focus on queue-management problems may not discover the opportunity to get the rid of the queue. To find different answers, we might ask different questions.

An organization that exports fresh fruit around the world will have many well-defined process problems to address, and that will keep them busy with process improvement. However, there are also opportunities that are unlikely to be defined as a ‘business-as-usual’ problem. What if an RFID tag was incorporated in the label on each piece of fruit? Then an app might be developed that would allow the ultimate consumer to link to the orchard where this particular piece of fruit was grown. Then all sorts of things might be done to more strongly connect consumers to growers, orchards, pickers, packers, and the whole supply chain—and this could then be used to generate a stronger customer community and, perhaps, incite the development of premium products and services. In focusing on reported performance problems, we won’t see such opportunities for a process.

As well as identifying problems looking for solutions, we need to discover solutions looking for a problem. To describe something as a “solution looking for a problem” has often been meant as a disparaging comment, but to optimize process improvement outcomes, it might be the very best approach.

We need a way to think more broadly allowing us to identifying opportunities in process improvement to be embraced as well as problems to be solved. We are good at identifying weaknesses and circumstances that threaten process performance, but we need to look for other aspects—characteristics that make a process strong, or opportunities to do something new.

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