An Intelligent Approach to Improving Business Processes

0516CBPS-Art_0516Wikipedia describes business intelligence as “a set of techniques and tools for the acquisition and transformation of raw data into meaningful and useful information for business analysis purposes.” This description can certainly apply to the leveraging of Six Sigma performance management-based methodologies to improve current processes and workflows.

With this viewpoint in mind, I will spotlight the power of business performance management tools and techniques to better measure, manage and continuously improve business processes and workflows. To demonstrate the practical benefits of this approach, I’ll offer a brief case history example that focuses on how we worked with a manufacturing company to deploy a Six Sigma Kaizen event (a quick and efficient improvement process focused on a single process) to fix workflows that weren’t meeting goals for efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Since the subject of how Six Sigma methodologies can help drive continuous process improvement is one that can easily fill a book, I’ll briefly touch on a few key points. One is the ability to access insightful, actionable business performance-related data in near real time. Consider the fact that stock exchanges around the world use leading-edge technology systems to track market performance as close to real time as possible. Yet ironically, many of the companies monitored by these systems use outdated methods to follow the performance of their own business processes. Some of these legacy approaches include for example, relying on post-dated quarterly reports, spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

This same situation often applies when companies outsource document management processes such as print, mail and records management. The reason: many vendors also rely on monthly paper reports or limited online reporting of fixed metrics. One alternative is to partner with a service provider that has the ability — based on people with Six Sigma expertise combined with process knowledge and the right technology — to measure what matters most.
Our approach involves first talking with a client to identify service level agreements (SLAs) and performance targets. Key performance indicators (KPIs) are then identified and process maps are created to depict the desired workflow and data capture points. Finally, the data is entered into the performance management system for analyzing, in near-real-time, the document process services that are being monitored. With this approach we can work with the client to assess process capability, enable root cause analysis and monitor processes continuously for improvement.

Let’s look at how a specific Six Sigma tool, the Kaizen event, exemplifies this intelligent approach to improving business processes. As I mentioned earlier, a Kaizen event is a relatively quick improvement project that often focuses on a single process. The term Kaizen derives from two Japanese concepts: “Kai” (to take apart) and “Zen” (to make better or quite literally, change for the good).

A Kaizen event begins by clarifying the problem being reviewed and the goal of the project. Then the project team documents the current process. This defines how the process flows as well as the various decisions and actions that support it. Next, project members identify various forms of waste in the process and brainstorm potential improvements, some of which are selected for pilot testing. Once the team identifies the appropriate changes to implement, a revised map detailing the new process is documented. Additionally, standard operating procedures are created, metrics are developed in order to evaluate the results of the process change including potential cost savings, and a continuous improvement plan is crafted that defines action items that must be completed to achieve project deliverables and drive continuous improvement.

So far I’ve offered a concise description of a Kaizen event in theory; now let’s look at a practical example of it in action. The shipping and receiving division for a major product manufacturer needed to improve its ability to track and deliver packages, mail and valuable documents to final delivery points within the organization. Our Best Practices team was brought in to implement a Six Sigma Kaizen event to identify actions that would increase productivity and accountability while reducing errors produced in the company’s shipping and receiving operation.

The manufacturer faced a significant mail management challenge. Each month, mail couriers delivered thousands of packages to the company’s receiving dock. This included hundreds of product sample packages and items for testing. Additionally, the company receives hundreds of letters and packages daily that are related to important administrative functions.

The company’s goal was to ensure accountability for all packages arriving on its dock. However, when the Best Practices team examined the existing receiving process, it found that there were multiple gaps in the chain of custody that could lead to lost and delayed packages. (The chain of custody is the continuous trail of accountability that ensures the physical security of letters and packages received through delivery.)

The company had made a substantial investment in software for package tracking and accountability. The company’s investment was predicated on being able to obtain package details from receipt through delivery including end-of-day status and volume by package type, route and delivery location. However, the software had not been configured to provide this important data.

Additionally, the workflow in the shipping and receiving area was cluttered and contributed to incorrectly delivered and lost packages. There were many workflow “crossover” activities due to restricted space and company research processes.

Our team mapped the accountable mail/receiving process, identified the gaps and brainstormed and identified potential solutions. They created a comprehensive continuous improvement plan that identified actions and focused on such activities as modifying workflow on the dock to minimize package handling, eliminating duplicative efforts and updating the software system.

The team redesigned the workflow first, eliminating the crisscrossing of packages on the dock and in the mailroom. With the new process, the team was able to ensure an efficient workflow for each package from receipt through staging for delivery.

Next, the team reconfigured the package-tracking software to match the new workflow, ensuring that the entire chain of custody could be tracked for any delivery scenario. The redesign included using handheld devices, a new list of status codes available in the software system that enable better tracking and new performance management reports.

Then the Best Practices team configured the software system to provide an end-of-day report that details all packages that have not yet been delivered. At the end of each business day, the receiving supervisor prints this report in order to ensure that all non-delivered packages are physically located in the secure dock holding area. We also configured a performance report that details the number of packages delivered, as well as the number of packages delivered late and the percentage of on-time performance for the receiving area.

Finally, the team ensured that employees were thoroughly trained on the improved processes and software.

Since the Kaizen Event, the company has experienced virtually zero defects relative to incorrectly delivered or mishandled packages. The company now has the accountability for package receipt and delivery that it desired.
Delivery signatures and all delivery attempts are captured directly on handheld scanners. As staff members finish their routes, they synchronize their data so that employees in the shipping and receiving department and end-users can access complete and detailed delivery information. Closing procedures and package inventory are conducted at the end of every business day. Overall, the company and Best Practices team delivered the following results:

•  Accountability for packages received into the dock
•  Improved accountable mail process tracking capability
•  Enhanced efficiency in the receiving area through redesigned workflow
•  Increased employee productivity, empowerment and training
•  Timely and accurate delivery of all packages

Like the manufacturer, other organizations can tap the power of Six Sigma-based methodologies and tools, like a Kaizen event, to solve problems and ensure continuous improvement. To my thinking, this represents one of the most intelligent and readily available approaches to improving business processes today.

Ken Neal is a fellow, corporate communications for Canon Business Process Services.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Workflow.

is a certified enterprise content management practitioner (ecmp) and director of corporate communications for Canon Business Process Services, a leader in managed services and technology.