Handbook for basic process improvement

What is the new Handbook for Basic Process Improvement? 
The new handbook has been developed to assist team leaders at all levels who are involved in process improvement efforts. Together with the Basic Tools for Process Improvement, or “tools kit,” it provides the practical information you need to initiate and successfully carry out process improvement activities. The approach and tools described in the handbook follow a Basic Process Improvement Model. This model differs in many respects from the Process Improvement Flowchart found in the CNO-sponsored Starter Kit for Basic Process Improvement distributed to commanding officers several years ago. The Basic Process Improvement Model is much more detailed, in keeping with the “how to” approach used in the new handbook. Together, the model and handbook explain the actual actions teams must take to improve a process. Before diving into the step-by-step discussion, let’s first clarify some terms, look at the benefits of process improvement, and think about the best way to get started.

What is a process? 
A process is no more than the steps and decisions involved in the way work is accomplished. Everything we do in our lives involves processes and lots of them.
As you can see, the level of importance of processes varies. 

  • Some processes, such as conducting an UNREP or mooring a ship, are very important. If such a process performs very poorly—if it is not doing what it is supposed to do—the command might be unable to complete its mission. 
  • Other processes—for example, ordering a part, or developing a budget—are less significant in terms of the command’s mission. But, while they are less important to the overall operation of the command, such routine processes are still vital to the smooth functioning of an office or work center.

Besides differing in importance, processes can be either simple or complicated.

  • Some processes may be comparatively simple. Repairing a valve, for example, may be a relatively simple task involving only a few people and straightforward procedures. 
  • On the other hand, some processes, such as conducting a main space fire drill, are very complicated. Many people are involved and numerous process steps and contributing processes are required. 

Who owns processes? 
Everyone has a stake in one or more processes. Groups of individuals usually share in—and “own”—the activities which make up a process. But the one individual who is ultimately responsible and accountable for the proper working of the process is known as the “process owner.” The process owner is the immediate supervisor or leader who has control over the entire process from beginning to end. 
A process owner may choose to be a team leader and participate directly in the actions of a process improvement team. Or, the process owner may decide to delegate the team leadership role to another person who is knowledgeable about the process. Whatever the case, it is very important for the process owner to stay informed about the team’s actions and decisions affecting the process.
What is process improvement? 
“Process improvement” means making things better, not just fighting fires or managing crises. It means setting aside the customary practice of blaming people for problems or failures. It is a way of looking at how we can do our work better. 
When we take a problem-solving approach or simply try to fix what’s broken, we may never discover or understand the root cause of the difficulty. Murphy’s Law comes into play and our efforts to “fix” things may actually make things worse. 
However, when we engage in true process improvement, we seek to learn what causes things to happen in a process and to use this knowledge to reduce variation, remove activities that contribute no value to the product or service produced, and improve customer satisfaction. A team examines all of the factors affecting the process: the materials used in the process, the methods and machines used to transform the materials into a product or service, and the people who perform the work.
How does process improvement benefit the organization? 
A standardized process improvement methodology allows us to look at how we perform work. When all of the major players are involved in process improvement, they can collectively focus on eliminating waste—of money, people, materials, time, and opportunities. The ideal outcome is that jobs can be done cheaper, quicker, easier, and—most importantly—safer. 
A teamwork approach is intrinsic to life in the Navy. Using total quality tools and methods reinforces teamwork. Using team members’ collective knowledge, experiences, and efforts is a powerful approach to improving processes. Through teamwork, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. 
How does an organization get started on process improvement? 
An essential first step in getting started on process improvement is for the senior leader to make it a command priority. The importance of process improvement must be communicated from the top. Leaders need to foster an organizational environment in which a process improvement mentality can thrive and people are using quality-related tools and techniques on a regular basis. 
For the organization to reach this state, leaders must ensure that everyone receives the training that will enable them to carry out their process improvement efforts effectively. The TQL training made available within the DON provides background and learning experiences for leaders, quality advisors, TQL coordinators, and supervisors, who can then train teams on a just-in-time basis. In addition, this handbook has been developed to provide teams with a step-by-step approach for their process improvement efforts. 
Instilling a process improvement mentality in an organization can be difficult because it requires some different ways of thinking than we are accustomed to in the Navy. Process improvement requires everyone to become a “fire preventer,” rather than a “fire fighter.” The focus is on improving a process over the long term, not just patching up procedures and work routines as problems occur. To get started on process improvement, leaders who have been fighting fires need to set aside the CO2 bottle and start thinking in these terms: 

  • What process should we select for improvement? 
  • What resources are required for the improvement effort? 
  • Who are the right people to improve the selected process? 
  • What’s the best way to learn about the process? 
  • How do we go about improving the process? 
  • How can we institutionalize the improved process?

What is in the Basic Process Improvement Model? 
The Basic Process Improvement Model is presented on the next page. It has two parts: 

  • A process simplification segment outlining steps 1 through 7 of the process improvement cycle is placed on the left. Teams begin process improvement activities with these steps. Depending on the stability and capability of the process, the team may continue on to step 8, or go directly to step 14. 
  • A Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) Cycle consisting of steps 8 through 14 flows from the process simplification segment. 

Using all 14 steps of the model will increase the team’s process knowledge, broaden decision-making options, and enhance the likelihood of satisfactory long-term results. Let’s take a quick look at what’s in each of the steps in the model.
Step 1: Select the process to be improved and establish a well-defined process improvement objective. The objective may be established by the team or come from outside tasking. 
Step 2: Organize a team to improve the process. This involves selecting the “right” people to serve on the team; identifying the resources available for the improvement effort, such as people, time, money, and materials; setting reporting requirements; and determining the team’s level of authority. These elements may be formalized in a written charter. 
Step 3: Define the current process using a flowchart. This tool is used to generate a step-by-step map of the activities, actions, and decisions which occur between the starting and stopping points of the process. 
Step 4: Simplify the process by removing redundant or unnecessary activities. People may have seen the process on paper in its entirety for the first time in Step 3. This can be a real eye-opener which prepares them to take these first steps in improving the process. 
Step 5: Develop a plan for collecting data and collect baseline data. These data will be used as the yardstick for comparison later in the model. This begins the evaluation of the process against the process improvement objective established in Step 1. The flowchart in Step 3 helps the team determine who should collect data and where in the process data should be collected.
Step 6: Assess whether the process is stable . The team creates a control chart or run chart out of the data collected in Step 5 to gain a better understanding of what is happening in the process. The follow-on actions of the team are dictated by whether special cause variation is found in the process. 
Step 7: Assess whether the process is capable . The team plots a histogram to compare the data collected in Step 5 against the process improvement objective established in Step 1. Usually the process simplification actions in Step 4 are not enough to make the process capable of meeting the objective and the team will have to continue on to Step 8 in search of root causes. Even if the data indicate that the process is meeting the objective, the team should consider whether it is feasible to improve the process further before going on to Step 14. 
Step 8: Identify the root causes which prevent the process from meeting the objective. The team begins the Plan-Do-Check-Act Cycle here, using the cause-and-effect diagram or brainstorming tools to generate possible reasons why the process fails to meet the desired objective. 
Step 9: Develop a plan for implementing a change based on the possible reasons for the process’s inability to meet the objective set for it. These root causes were identified in Step 8. The planned improvement involves revising the steps in the simplified flowchart created after changes were made in Step 4. 
Step 10: Modify the data collection plan developed in Step 5, if necessary. 
Step 11: Test the changed process and collect data. 
Step 12: Assess whether the changed process is stable . As in Step 6, the team uses a control chart or run chart to determine process stability. If the process is stable, the team can move on to Step 13; if not, the team must return the process to its former state and plan another change. 
Step 13: Assess whether the change improved the process. Using the data collected in Step 11 and a histogram, the team determines whether the process is closer to meeting the process improvement objective established in Step 1. If the objective is met, the team can progress to Step 14; if not, the team must decide whether to keep or discard the change. 
Step 14: Determine whether additional process improvements are feasible. The team is faced with this decision following process simplification in Step 7 and again after initiating an improvement in Steps 8 through 13. In Step 14, the team has the choice of embarking on continuous process improvement by reentering the model at Step 9, or simply monitoring the performance of the process until further improvement is feasible.