Process Improvement – The method

continuous improvementProcess Performance Framework

This methodology is reasonably extensive but as I developed the framework it became apparent that each element has a key role to play in either defining or monitoring the performance of the given process. The gap that it typically fills is that which exists between a set of written procedures and the business strategy or project goal.

A brief summary of the methodology is provided below

It should be noted that the processes that I refer to here are processes that are typically cross functional and are core or key to the success of the operation or project. Examples of these processes would include Management of Change (projects), Planning for unscheduled breakdowns, Project Schedule Validation.

Step 1- Define the systems/processes purpose:

This includes the answer to the questions of why, what  and when to ensure that there is clarity with all relevant stakeholders. In another form, these three questions would be separated into a Vision, Mission and Objectives but I have found that a brief statement covering all three elements serves to shorten the time it takes to define the requirements and encourages brevity. An example of a good purpose statement for say the Management of Change process would be : ‘To limit the approval of change on project xxx to that which is absolutely necessary to deliver the project’s approved basis of design within the projects approved timeframe”.

Step 2 -Risk, Root cause analysis and mitigation – There are  a couple of key characteristics of this section that really matter.

a) Risk does not exist in isolation, The context for risk is in the purpose of the process or system. Without a clearly defined purpose, it is impossible to establish the associated risks

b) Risks are symptomatic; root causes are what matter. The fundamental of most good risk management processes is the conversion of risks to root causes.

c) Mitigation is a question of balance – It is important that the mitigation strategy adopted by the organisation is commensurate with the risk appetite of that organisation and that the mitigation is appropriate given the balance between achieving the processes purpose and the likelihood of the risk occurring

Effective process improvement ensures that risk management practices are routinely incorporated into the design of a process to ensure that the processes are relevant

Step 3 – Assumptions

Assumptions are often hidden beliefs held by individuals that are relied upon to be true but do not have proof of being correct. This section seeks to expose the assumptions necessary to be true in order to achieve the stated purpose. Often in the process of exposing these (hidden) assumptions, the team discovers that pre existing assumptions are no longer true and need to be reworded and redefined. Using the example purpose statement for the Management of Change process mentioned above, a necessary assumption would be that ‘The basis of design has been sufficiently defined to describe the boundaries of the project’ and ‘In the absence of a clear and unambiguous basis of design document the intent of the project will be used to guide scope’

Step 4 – Definitions of Key Terms

Each organisation develops its own set of terms and over time their meaning change resulting in mis-interpretation and mis-understanding.  A Glossary of terms goes a long way to clarifying and establishing what is meant by the use of certain words and phrases.

Step 5 –  Operating Principles / Philosophies

The intent with this step is to define what are the minimum mandatory statements of intent that define the required  behavior and actions  in the execution of work in accordance with the purpose statement. There should be no conflict between the philosophies and the purpose statement

An example of a operating principle related to the Management of Change purpose statement mentioned above would be ‘ All applications for change must be evaluated for their impact on Cost, Schedule and Scope prior to submission’

Step 6  – Materiality

Materiality is a term often used by financial auditors to help guide them in defining the quantified  size of error or omissions that would give rise to an adverse audit report. In a process improvement environment, I have often discovered that many processes get stuck when management have failed to define what they consider to be what matters most and the tolerance for error. What matters most means allows management to define that it is a combination of time and relevancy that matters when defining what outputs should be prioritised over others.

Whereas the Tolerance for Error allows management to stipulate the accuracy of the reported values. For example, using the Management of Change process, and change proposals which are are considered likely to impact any project risk that is in the Crisis/Critical category would be more important and therefore require greater scrutiny than those that don’t meet this criteria. Similarly, when the Change proposal is evaluated for schedule impact, the level of accuracy might be defined as requiring to have a confidence limit of 95%  and a range value of 5 days.

A discussion on materiality from a process perspective causes an engagement with management that is often overlooked but goes a long way to clarifying intent

Step 7 – Key Performance Indicators and Standards

There are a a couple of characteristics of KPI”s and standards that are worth mentioning

A)  A KPI defines a measure of a variable considered to be an important indicator of either process compliance or process output. Both KPI’s are required in order to monitor and continuously improve on a process or system.

B) Standards help define what is acceptable variation and what isn’t. It is important to note however that a process must achieve stability (operating within 3 standard deviations from the mean) before management are entitled to seek improvements in capability. If a process has never been statistically monitored before, then the standards should only be established when sufficient data points have been aggregated to be able to statistically validate whether stability exists or not. All special cause variations need to be acted upon and eliminated in the pursuit of a stable process

Step 8 – Controllable vs Non Controllable Variables

Individuals who are involved in process execution or management often have a skewed view of what they consider to be in their control vs that which isn’t . This section of the methodology provides an opportunity to clarify what is and what isn’t within the control of those managing or executing a process. For example, if a change request is submitted without all the requisite sign offs, is the administrator authorized to use their own discretion in respect to rejection or acceptance of the submission for review?

Step 9 – Backup Plans and Trigger Points

Back up plans and trigger points are used to empower key personnel who are responsible for certain activities in a process to deviate from the approved process under certain predefined circumstances in order to preserve the end objective of delivering to the process purpose. For example, in the Management of Change process, if certain data is not made available at a certain time, should the application be stopped or processed in the expectation that the missing data is made available prior to final approval? Trigger points stipulate the particular circumstances when this is allowed and that point in time when the back up plan (proceed with the application without the missing data) can be activated. Note that backup plans are only applied in exceptional circumstances and there is a specific KPI included to monitor excess use


Step 10 – Education, Training and Communication

This is a key activity that is often overlooked in the pursuit of defining the work. Education applies to line management, training applies to those executing the work and communication is to Stakeholders who need to be kept informed on what is going on. A formal Education, Training and Communication plan is essential to ensure that there are no omissions and that the key messages are delivered in a consistent and timely manner.

Step 11 – Accountability Tool

The accountability tool was first developed to create transparency and manage expectations when  addressing non compliance to safety processes within business. I adopted the tool to accommodate a similar outcome for processes that don’t have a moral or ethical imperative so as to gauge and enshrine the level of commitment by management to the process improvement model. The accountability tool simply adopts a set of sequential questions seeking to identify and then correct for errors and or omissions related to training, systems, or behavior (in that order). Similarly, the tool establishes the consequence of repetitive non compliance where behavior is intentional

Step 12 –  Process Map and SIPOC sheet completion

The process map and the SIPOC (Supplier, Inputs, Process of Transformation, Outputs and Customers) are key instruments that define the sequential set of activities that need to be performed in order to deliver to the processes purpose. THe process map shows both swimlanes and timeframes enabling individual functions to know what functions are responsible for completing the activities in the given sequence by the stipulated timeframe.

The SIPOC sheet defines a  level of granularity for each activity in respect to the  supplier, inputs, process, outputs and customer/s. This level of granularity is critical to establish who is doing what and when as well as a useful tool for training of new recruits

Step 13 – Alignment of procedures

Once the performance framework has been defined, it is important that there is no misalignment between the framework and the existing operational procedures. Often this can involve a major rewrite and in other instances a minor update.

Step 14 – Roles and responsibilities

Roles and responsibilities define the key roles of process owner and process manager. Process owner is responsible for setting the strategic intent of the process and alignment of the processes purpose with the objectives of the business at large. Modifications to the performance framework are managed and facilitated by the process owner. The process manager is responsible for the execution of work in accordance with the process, capturing and reporting of KPI’s and follow up on the completion of continuous improvement initiatives.


These 14 steps combine to offer a powerful and closed loop set of activities which in combination with routine monthly lessons learnt workshops ensures that

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