A Measured Response
Putting aside for a moment the fact that such assessments are often not done at all, how do we (should we) measure whether a process improvement project (PIP) has been successfully completed?
Run the PIP using whatever process analysis and redesign method you prefer. That will result in a series of recommended actions that are designed to impact process performance. End of PIP.
End of PIP? I don't think so. We have recommendations but no changes. The purpose of a PIP is to create, not a To Be, but a new As Is.
OK, let's initiate projects to execute those recommended change actions. Track the projects to make sure the actions are complete. All green? All done. PIP complete.
PIP complete? I don't think so. The actions are complete, but were they effective? Did the actions deliver the targeted performance improvements?
OK, let's ask the stakeholders and maybe take some measurements. Everybody happy? Job done. PIP complete.
PIP complete? I don't think so. One-off measures and ad hoc (and possibly superficial and unreliable) stakeholder comments are not a viable measurement system.
In three quite different environments, I've recently encountered this unconscious assumption that actions equal change, that change project completion means performance improvement.
That's an act of faith, not of management.
The assumption is that good process analysis resulted in appropriate change recommendations, so if we just make the changes performance will improve. It also assumes perfect analysis and an unchanging context for the process.
That's not the world I live in. Where I live there is constant change and (spoiler alert!) I don't make perfect decisions.
The purpose of process
The purpose of process is performance.
Let's be very clear about this. All our process work is about making performance improvements to targeted processes so as to impact organizational performance in ways that are welcomed by both the customers and the business.
I wrote about delivering Proven Valued Business Benefits in a previous column.
Measuring process performance might seem more than a little daunting. Don't we already have too many KPIs? Do we really need to add a whole new set of PKPIs? Won't continuously measuring process performance continuously highlight poor process performance? Yes, yes, and yes.
The process performance question is always this:
If this process was working as well as its key stakeholders want it to, what would it be doing and how would we know?
A simple question that is usually not too hard to answer.
And if this question does prove too hard to answer about a high-impact process, then there is a serious lack of shared understanding and agreement that must be resolved.
For a well-understood and well-managed process, we would also have answers to these variants on the main question:
- How is the process performing?
- How should it perform?
- How could it perform?
- How will it perform?
Effective process management is about finding the sweet spot in the ever-changing performance vectors is, should, could, and will. We've discussed this before as well, here and here.
Of course, the change projects are important, and they must be subject to good project management. However, even if we have chosen the correct process and identified the perfect changes to make, many process changes take longer than we might like. There is a change latency that might be measured in weeks or months, or even years. What else has changed during that time?
To give process performance measurement the emphasis it needs, the first step in any PIP must be to set the PKPIs and related targets.
Ideally, we'd only be initiating a PIP because of some current or emergent problem or opportunity that has been highlighted by tracking PKPIs.
So, step one in any PIP should be to set or review the PKPIs and targets. Indeed, to challenge the reason for running the PIP at all. What's the problem we are trying to fix? If there is no clear answer to that question, stop the PIP and don't restart until there is one.
In an ideal world, the only reason to run a project would be to improve a process in a targeted way. That's not our world, of course, but it's worth keeping the idea in mind.
With PKPIs and targets set for the process then the analysis can be based on the change in performance required, measured through the relevant PKPI(s). The process currently takes 3 hours to execute, and maybe we want it to take 3 minutes, or perhaps 3 clicks.
That gives a clear performance target, and change options can be assessed accordingly. They can also be tracked to see if the changes had the desired effect, and if they didn't, repeat the analysis to find out why and make further changes — and as a consequence, build deeper understanding of the process.
Beyond the PIP, which is a one-off project, continue to actively measure the performance of high-impact processes, always seeking opportunities to match performance with stakeholder expectation.
That's the 'continuous' part of 'continuous improvement'. Process-based management is a management philosophy, not a project.
I've discussed the Process Behavior Chart (PBC) in a previous column, so I won't go into the details here. Suffice to say that we display real process mastery when we use the PBC effectively, and for that we need PKPIs, targets, and performance data.
Using a PBC for a stable process, we can say what is very likely to happen next week, not just what happened last week. When we make a change to a process, we can predict the signal that will confirm the effect of our change. If a change happens for any other reason, we can detect the signal and explore the cause.
End of PIP?
We aren't managing processes if we aren't measuring their performance.
Active process management of high impact processes delivers the agility, flexibility, resilience, and responsiveness that is demanded of contemporary organizations. That requires the profound insights that can only come from deep understanding of the performance vectors. PIPs continually refine process, and therefore organizational, performance.
Effective process management requires well-considered acts of management, not acts of faith. Show me the data!
When asking if a PIP is complete, we must have a measured response.
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