What is process improvement? A business methodology for efficiency and productivity

A broken business process can cost your business time and money. But pinpointing exactly where a process breaks down — and where it can be improved — isn’t an exact science.

What is process improvement? A business methodology for efficiency and productivity
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What is process improvement?

Process improvement involves the business practice of identifying, analyzing and improving existing business processes to optimize performance, meet best practice standards or simply improve quality and the user experience for customers and end-users.

Process improvement can have several different names such as business process management (BPM), business process improvement (BPI), business process re-engineering, continual improvement process (CIP), to name a few. Regardless of the nomenclature, they all pursue the same goal: to minimize errors, reduce waste, improve productivity and streamline efficiency.

Process improvement techniques 

There are several different methodologies designed to help your organization tackle process improvement. Each aims to help your business identify process issues, fix them and analyze the success or failure of those changes.

Despite that common goal, each methodology suits a different need. Some frameworks focus on lean process improvement techniques; others focus on getting your company culture in the right place for process improvement. There are also methodologies that help companies visually map out process workflows.

  • Kaizen: Kaizen promotes continuous improvement with a strong emphasis on lean and agile practices. Kaizen focuses on improving quality, productivity and efficiency through small shifts in daily work or corporate culture to foster an environment that doesn’t punish errors or mistakes, but instead works to prevent them from happening again.
  • 5S: The 5S model is part of the Kaizen and Lean methodologies and it stands for five main steps: sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain. The 5S model helps bring more consistency to process improvement and can standardize process improvement.
  • PDCA: Also part of the Kaizen methodology, PDCA stands for plan, do, check and act. It helps organizations be more efficient when identifying processes that need improvement. You first identify the problem (plan), create and implement a solution (do), evaluate data for effectiveness (check) then document the final results and implement the plan if it’s successful (act).
  • Six Sigma: Six Sigma is a popular process improvement methodology that pulls workers up through ranks classified using karate belts. You start as a green belt and learn your way up to a black belt. Six Sigma involves two ways to break down process improvement through specific steps. These steps include define, measure, analyze, improve and control (DMAIC) and define, measure, analyze, design and verify (DMADV).
  • Cause and Effect analysis: Another tool born from Six Sigma is Cause and Effect analysis, which involves using a diagraming method to fix problems the first time by identifying the problem, discovering road blocks and pinpointing why the process isn’t working.
  • SIPOC analysis: As a diagram format that falls under the Six Sigma methodology, SIPOC analysis happens during the “measure” stage of DMAIC or DMADV. SIPOC helps organizations define and establish a process improvement project as well as identify requirements and necessary elements before starting.
  • Value stream mapping (VSM): VSM helps organizations visually represent customer’s perceptions of a business process, which helps identify the value of a product, process or service to the organization. Similar to other methodologies, it’s highly focused on eliminating waste, redundancy and being as lean as possible.
  • Total Quality Management (TQM): Focused on cultivating long-term success through customer satisfaction, TQM helps organizations get the entire company on board with continuous process improvement. It’s a methodology that empowers workers by fostering a culture where employees aren’t afraid to make mistakes and are driven towards a shared business goal.
  • Kanban: Kanban is a tool for process workflow visualization that gets business units, leadership and employees on the same page for process improvement. It’s another methodology that incorporates and encourages lean process improvement.
  • Process mapping: Another workflow visualization that helps companies map out a plan for process improvement is process mapping. It can also be called a process flowchart, process chart, functional flowchart and process model. Ultimately, it’s the process of creating a flow diagram that delivers vital information about a process workflow from start to finish.

Automation’s role in process improvement

Because it’s one of the easiest ways to improve processes is to eliminate manual toil and reduce human error, automation plays a significant role in process improvement. Process automation helps organizations understand where they need to improve and what is working as it should.

Robotic process automation (RPA) is a hot topic in automation and businesses have embraced the practice to streamline processes. It allows organizations to mimic human actions for tasks or steps involved in complex processes. Automation occurs through a string of rules and triggers that eliminate the need for manual labor in specific parts of the process and allow the RPA to do what a human previously had to do.

Some process improvements that are automated with RPA includes automated email responses, online order processing, categorizing help desk tickets, transferring data between systems and payroll management. This not only helps create more efficiency around business process, but it also helps free up workers to focus on more complex tasks that automation can’t handle.

Process improvement jobs

Since process improvement is more of a high-level business concept than an actual job title, there are a number of titles you will find that fall under the realm of process improvement.

You will commonly see jobs listed under process improvement manager or continuous improvement manager. The average salary for a process improvement manager is $82,000 per year, according to data from PayScale. Continuous improvement managers report an average salary of $83,000 per year and process improvement directors report an average salary of $110,000 per year.

Other popular job titles, and their respective average annual salaries according to data from PayScale, for process improvement roles includes:

  • Process analyst: $60,000
  • Process architect: $95,000
  • Continuous improvement specialist: $62,000
  • Business process technology analyst: $73,000
  • Process engineer: $72,000
  • Business process analyst: $64,000
  • Process improvement engineer: $70,000
  • Operations excellence manager: $105,000
  • Lean process improvement manager: $87,000

Process improvement training

There are plenty of ways to get yourself trained on process improvement. If your company adheres to a specific methodology, such as Six Sigma or Kaizen, you can get certified or trained in that framework. If your business doesn’t adhere or a specific methodology, or you’re already certified in that area, there are other process improvement certifications you can earn and courses you can take to get up to speed.

  • BPM Essentials: Business process model and notation (BPMN) method and style training course
  • BPM Institute: Business Process Management Professional (BPMP) certification
  • BPTrends Associates: Principles of Business Process Management and Introduction to Business Process Modeling, Analysis and Design
  • Coursera: Operations management: Strategy and quality management for the digital age
  • Learning Tree International: Introduction to business process improvement (BPI) training
  • Udemy: Master business process improvement and process mapping
  • Watermark Learning: Business process improvement

This story, "What is process improvement? A business methodology for efficiency and productivity" was originally published by CIO.

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