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We are often asked, how quickly can we achieve some improvements? In this day and age everyone wants to make improvements straight away. It’s understandable to want to get results right away however you need to remember that a process has not suddenly started performing poorly – usually it has taken months if not years to get to its current poorly performing state, so is it realistic that a process can be rapidly improved when it took so long to get to its current performance level?

The majority of improvement projects we have typically been involved with, have fallen under the following categories, cycle time reduction, throughput maximisation, cost reduction and safety improvement. This applies across all industries we have been involved with.

We were recently working on a large mining project (we wrote about it in this case study) with the objective of increasing the throughput through a milling operation that was the bottleneck for the complete mining process. We knew if we could just make improvements at this operational step, we would increase the throughput of the whole operation -a unit of increased production at the bottleneck, is a unit increased output of the whole operation. The operation achieved a 29% improvement that took over two weeks. However it took six months to get to the understanding of the process, to enable us to achieve the $12M improvement that only took two weeks. The learning for us was the realisation that projects don’t have to be long and laborious. Results can be achieved in a very short time. It also reinforced the power of our preferred hybrid improvement methodology TLS (Theory of Constraints, Lean and Six Sigma) which is based around using a combination of the three approaches at the appropriate time.

We have seen many projects like this, where improvements have been quick with huge results.

If we analyse the projects that have been very rapid they have the following characteristics:

  1. Process is well understood and defined (or easy to define).
  2. Process bottleneck is clearly identified.
  3. The critical process inputs were well known.
  4. The appropriate improvement tool was chosen.
  5. Availability of Process Improvement Team members.

Let’s look at each characteristic in more detail:

Characteristic One: Process is well understood and defined. All processes are made up of a series of process steps that transform the product or information to the final output. The steps can be actual steps that transform product or service, or waste steps that do not transform the product or service in a meaningful manner.

For characteristic one to be valid, the process steps need to be understood or at least easy to map out. Often we find that in operations or manufacturing, the processes are well understood while in transactional processes these are often not at all well known. In fact we find most transactional processes to be complex with many ‘hidden’ processes.

Characteristic Two: Identification of process bottleneck is clear. If we are going to make improvements quickly we must start at the process bottleneck. In manufacturing or operation this is easy to detect (usually looking for increased inventory) however in a non physical environment inventory is invisible and thus we lose a physical clue as to the bottleneck location.

Characteristic Three: If we want to improve any process we need to understand the critical levers (or inputs) that govern the process performance. It is those inputs we need to   change or manipulate to get a changed process output. These inputs could be very varied in nature such as a machine setting (i.e. motor speed), a shift start time or process waste.

Usually a projects cycle time will drag on if we can’t find those critical levers as we may have to collect data to help us to determine the critical inputs.

Characteristics Four: In order to minimise project cycle time then we need to minimise project waste. One form of project waste is by not using the appropriate improvement methodology. Each of the improvement methodologies has a collection of improvement tools. Using a tool that is not needed is waste.

Characteristic Five: Team Members must be available to work on the project. In our experience the availability of team members is the single biggest contributor to project delays.

In order to achieve rapid performance improvement through projects we have found that five characteristics are important to understand. Completing a quick audit of your improvement project for the five characteristics will help you understand what areas may slow up your project and increase your cycle time.