Quality is a never-ending pursuit and Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) is a never-ending effort to discover and eliminate the main causes of problems. This can be accomplished by using small steps of improvements rather than aiming for a huge overhaul. The Japanese term for this called Kaizen, which involves bringing small systemic changes in any process by removing inefficiencies and waste, empower people at all levels of the organization to bring their input and bring changes to improve the process.
Because Kaizen is more a philosophy than a specific tool, its approach is found in many different process improvement methods ranging from Total Quality Management (TQM) and lean. As always, the focus is the customer and the end output is the same, except that the process is made more efficient and systematic by using the users of these workflows responsible for identifying the gaps and inefficiencies in a process and making improvements.
Continuous Process Improvement (CPI) strives to make things better. It is not about fighting fires. Also, CPI goal is not about blaming people for problems or failures. It is simply a way of looking at how work can be done in a better way. When we take a problem-solving approach, we often never get to the root cause because our main goal is to put out the fire. Putting out fires is also acceptable when deemed critical, but also coming up with a slightly modified process helps to avoid the recurrence of the fire and provides us an opportunity for improvement. Hence, when we engage in process improvement, we seek to learn what causes things to happen and then use this knowledge to make the changes.
Kaizen aims for improvements in productivity, effectiveness, safety, and waste reduction, and those who follow the approach often find a whole lot more in return.
Kaizen concepts applied
When do you apply such concepts? It can be applied anywhere any time to make improvements into processes and procedures that already exist. Even in the most structured organizations, many workplace processes are chaotic and disorganized. There is incomplete or outdated documentation, duplication of effort, different people carry out the process in a slightly different way, or the process employees follow is something slightly different each time. This is stressful for employees and costly for organizations too. Sometimes, work is pieced together out of necessity and nobody really gives it any strategic thought. Usually this isn’t a problem because we are knowledge workers—we adapt our thinking to compensate for what is an inefficient process. We make it work. Typically, when we start to fit ourselves into a client engagement where there are the client personnel and sometimes other vendors too, the common goal is to successfully achieve the completion of the project. So when cross functional teams start to collaborate, there will always be overlaps in process, shortfall in communications and this will possibly affect the delivery. Such inadequacies in the process are best detected at the start and when such improvements are made, they will help in normalizing the process and teams and eventually lead to better performance and successful delivery.
Here are few examples where we were able to successfully apply CPI.
- Case Study 1: In a project which was globally dispersed there were more than one test environments and there were emails going around for every environment request. There was no format for the requests, no assignees, no time zone from where the request was generated nor time zone when the request would be fulfilled. All these emails were addressed to a group of support people. This was leading to lot of anticipation by the test team. This also resulted in loss of productivity due to unknown ETA of the environment. All the planned work would go for a toss with the uncertainty. Given such a situation, there was a strategic way to approach this, which was to bring in a ticketing /tracking system where the request could be made and assigned to the respective member responsible. In the absence of a standard tool, we used the defect tracker to address these issues. Emails were converted to requests under a separate project name and each request was assigned to a person and an ETA was expected to be available. This was then exported to a file and sent in a mail to all the recipients. This helped the team plan downtime, schedule work accordingly and most importantly not receive so many mails for each environment like spam. This system was accessible by the entire team and was easy to implement. As a strategic move, the team moved to proper issue tracker and a workflow was established and then better implementation followed. This was a simple change but went a long way to increase productivity.
- Case Study 2: There was a project where end-to-end testing was to be done. The data from the application API was fed to third party applications. Our team was required to validate third party file output formats and address defects arising out of this. When testing commenced each third party started to send their issues to us. It was not only very hard to understand, categorize, and locate the issues but also to establish if it was valid or not. So a check-list was prepared for them to fill, calling out all the key information needed to understand the issue. This template was sent to the third parties, which they were required to fill with details related to the issues that were found. Thus the template became a useful tool to identify whether the issue was on their side or ours. Once done, they would then document it in a format with details we specified, details that we needed to trouble shoot the issue. Post this, there would be a ‘maker’ of the issue and another person would ensure it is checked again as a ‘checker’. Once this was completed, they would send us some specific headers to categorize the issues. All these were done as small changes but it became easier to handle the issues.
In conclusion, CPI helps the customer implicitly and explicitly by maximization of all customer resources, by rectifying low productivity, prolonged cycle time, costly organization, rampant wastage, and dissatisfied customers and employees. Optimization of processes even in small ways brings lot of return in productivity. Not improvising on a process leads to redundancy of work, confusion and wastage of time and loss of productivity. It can be a great drain on the effort and time during a delivery of a project. In today’s work place, with a diaspora of multiple service providers, having a defined process helps in a big way to get work done effectively and efficiently.