Process Improvement Methodologies: 7 Key Techniques You Need to Know

Rana Bano
October 31, 2022
min read
September 19, 2023
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Learn which process improvement methodologies can boost your team’s productivity. Implement them to notice improvements in no time.
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As an Ops leader, greater process efficiency, enhanced customer experience, and easy communication between units are likely your top priorities. 

You may have also implemented standard processes and practices to accomplish these goals effectively. But, with time, these processes lose relevance leading to project delays and increased costs.

Take the recent pandemic, for example. With teams confined to their homes, organizations had to embrace remote working and digital transformation overnights. 

If you want to continue boosting team productivity and eliminate bottlenecks, implementing process improvement for your business is a no-brainer. But before that, you must choose from the various process improvement methodologies.

What is process improvement?

Process improvement, also known as business process improvement, involves evaluating and optimizing your organization’s current processes and updating them with the intent of increased productivity, streamlined workflows, and higher profitability.

Think of it as fine-tuning the engine of your car so that it doesn’t stop working mid-way and drives smoothly.

Here are process improvement examples for different organizational departments:

Process improvement in Marketing
  • Implement mandatory approval checks to eliminate common typos and errors from marketing collateral.
  • Cut downtime needed to launch a campaign with automated communication.
Process improvement in Sales
  • Implement a BPMS with a mobile phone to approve sale discounts on the go.
  • Add conditional steps to get approvals for large orders that go over a specific value.
Process improvement in HR
  • Create a single form to track leave balances and make PTO requests.
  • Integrate onboarding processes with existing human resource management systems to eliminate manual data transfers.
Process improvement in IT
  • Provide new hires access to workflows and software before their first day
  • Auto-assign tickets to specialists, improving response time to service

You can start implementing process improvements as soon as you identify problem areas. If done correctly, you’ll see several positive benefits for your business, including higher productivity, enhanced user experience, cost reduction, and improved product quality.

7 Key process improvement methodologies

When you encounter operational challenges, receive complaints from customers, or simply want to optimize existing processes, it’s time to implement process improvement methodologies.

Unfortunately, as many as 70 percent of business improvement initiatives fail due to problems adopting a culture of continuous process improvement, failing to get employee buy-in and the lack of support from senior administration.

It’s why you need to know the best process improvement methodologies that work for your business and effectively yield desired results.

1. Lean manufacturing

Lean manufacturing or lean thinking, also known as just-in-time production, aims to cut down expenses by eliminating waste. To do this, this process improvement methodology factors in two types of business activities:

  • Value-added activities the customer doesn’t mind paying or mandated from a regulation or policy angle.
  • Non-value-added activities that are deemed unnecessary and wasteful.

It differentiates between the two categories of activities, mapping the value stream for each from the buyer’s perspective to remove waste and redundancy. 

Here are the seven types of company waste Lean Manufacturing aims to remove:

  • Defects: Employees spend a significant part of their day fixing production mistakes.
  • Overproduction: Creating the product in excess when there’s no real demand.
  • Waiting: Long waiting times between steps during production, resulting in employees sitting idle.
  • Transport: Inefficient movement of products and materials that leads to delays.
  • Motion: Lack of employee productivity.
  • Overprocessing: Unnecessary time resource wastage during production.
  • Inventory: Ineffective inventory management that results in existing inventory is much higher than needed.

MicroMetl, a Nevada-based heating and air conditioning equipment manufacturer, analyzed its workflows, wanting to improve product quality and consistency. Applying lean process improvements helped the company reduce indirect labor costs by 21 percent, which further helped reduce prices and increase market share.

2. Kaizen methodology

The Kaizen process improvement methodology aims for continuous improvement of every business function by involving all the employees, from C-suite executives to assembly-line workers.

In Japanese, Kaizen means to change (kai) for the better (zen). Everyone in the organization shares ideas and works together to implement continuous, gradual, and incremental changes — changes that ultimately leave behind a large-scale impact by improving productivity and eliminating wastefulness across all levels.

Similar to lean manufacturing, Kaizen strives to remove the following types of waste:

  • Muda (wastefulness): Resource-consuming activities that don’t add value.
  • Mura (unevenness): Overproduction that leads to waste, such as excessive products or inventory.
  • Muri (overburden): Too much strain and resources, such as overworked employees or worn-out equipment.

Another important aspect of Kaizen is maintaining cordial employee-manager relationships. This way, if mistakes do occur, everyone can work together harmoniously across the process improvement cycle.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries America (MHIA) leveraged the principles of the Kaizen methodology to make small, continuous changes in its design process. The company ultimately established a standardized module package that reduced errors in the design phase and customer costs by 5-10 percent.

3. 5S methodology

Part of the lean and Kaizen methodologies, the 5S model helps you implement continuous and rapid improvements. 

It’s based on five principles starting with the letter ‘S’ (hence the name) to make employees more efficient and effective in their work. These are:

  • Sort: Only keep what your team uses regularly or often within reach.
  • Straighten: Arrange the workplace in a way that employees can look for and find what they need or want in under 30 seconds to perform tasks without delays. 
  • Shine: Ensure the required equipment and boxes is always ready for use.
  • Standardize: Ensure each activity, task, or job is conducted consistently and in the same way. Also, encourage employees to share improvement ideas to further enhance the processes.
  • Sustain: Create a safe, efficient, and effective workplace.

Applying the 5S methodology not only promotes safety and reduces cost but also increases team efficiency by driving out waste from manufacturing processes. The fact that it helps standardize and brings more consistency to process improvement is another advantage.

4. Six Sigma methodology 

Six Sigma uses data and statistics to minimize the number of variations within the end product. If a process produces less than 3.4 defects per one million cycles, it's considered optimized under this model.

As the primary focus here is minimizing defects and inconsistencies, Six Sigma is generally used by manufacturing businesses and client-focused businesses looking to enhance end products or experiences. It allows them to understand how their processes work and what they can do to optimize for consistency and improve customer satisfaction. 

Six Sigma houses the following two processes:

  • DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve, control) for existing processes
  • DMADV (define, measure, analyze, design, verify) for new processes

A common mistake Ops leaders make is skipping the first three steps (define, measure, and analyze) and jumping directly to the improvement or designing phase, which unsurprisingly leads to project failure.

Six Sigma is also known for using karate belt colors to denote a practitioner’s level of Six Sigma understanding. For example, a white belt represents beginners, and a black belt indicates experts.

5. Business process management methodology

Business process management, or BPM, involves analyzing and enhancing business processes to ensure continuous improvement. 

This process improvement methodology adopts a more hands-on approach that includes the following steps:

  • Analyze: Identify potential improvements by evaluating existing processes and mapping them from beginning to end.
  • Design/Redesign: Evaluate and draft what your ideal business processes should look like after incorporating the identified changes. For example, if you find any inefficiencies in the first step, rebuild your processes by focusing on how you’ll solve them in this stage.
  • Execute: This step is all about putting your model into action. Test the design process on a small scale and establish key success metrics to determine whether the changes were successful.
  • Monitor: Compare current KPIs and benchmarks against previous metrics. Essentially, you want to determine whether the success metrics you identified in Step 3 are improving.
  • Optimize: Use the data and test processes to enhance business functions and processes. Continuously look for any inefficiencies in your process and optimize as you go.

There are also different types of business process management, each categorized according to the primary purpose they serve:

  • Human-centric business process management for processes majorly executed by humans.
  • Integration-centric business process management for processes that jump between your organization’s existing system with little to no human involvement.
  • Document-centric business process management focuses on documents (for example, an agreement or contract) that serves the heart of the entire process.

6. Agile methodology

Under agile methodology, you take an iterative approach to project management and process improvement. 

Instead of having stringent deadlines for projects, you’ll have back-to-back incremental steps, referred to as “scrum“ and “sprint“ meetings, to easily incorporate team feedback and highlight problems and successes. 

Address speed, budget, and quality while staying flexible on the scope of improvements, making it easier for your team to adapt to change. When implementing process improvements using scrum, you have to create a backlog of changes you intend to implement. 

Use the following framework to do this:

  • Initiate improvements. Identify processes you want to improve.
  • Diagnose. Monitor existing processes to find inefficiencies and issues.
  • Establish. Prioritize improvements and develop a game plan to tackle each challenge.
  • Act. Brainstorm effective solutions and pilot these changes to refine and ramp up implementation.
  • Learn. Measure feedback by analyzing performance and use the data to implement further improvements.

Every enhancement should be done in short bursts of incremental work, known as sprints. After planning your workflow improvements, you can roll them across four sprints:

  • Prototype: Make changes on a small scale.
  • Pilot: Test the changes on a small scale.
  • Deploy: Scale up the change.
  • Evaluate: Monitor how well the scaled-up change is performing.

Note that each sprint has a predetermined timeframe. You can assess the work and make priority changes after the duration ends.

7. 5 Whys analysis methodology 

The 5 Whys analysis is another renowned process improvement technique that focuses on identifying and solving the root cause of a problem. It’s a very straightforward way to deeply analyze your processes and recommend improvements by simply asking “Why” five times until you find out what the issue is.

Let’s explain this with the help of an example.

Suppose you find your team is getting several complaints regarding bad packaging. Here, you’ll ask the following five “whys”:

  • Why are we getting more complaints? Because the packaging isn’t adequately protecting your products.
  • Why is the packaging failing to protect the products? Because the team responsible for packaging isn’t testing the packages past a specific level of stress.
  • Why did the team not subject the packaging to further levels of stress? Because the current processes indicated the current testing level is sufficient.
  • Why did the current standard process indicate this testing level was sufficient? Because the process was created for another product. The current product needs updated processes since it's coming back damaged. 
  • Why did the packaging team not create a new process for the new product? Because the project template for launching new products doesn’t include updating stress testing levels for the new packaging.

Notice how each question helps you dig down to the root cause of the problem (in this case, the project template doesn't include updated stress testing levels for new product packaging). All questions have a logical flow, too, which helps you identify the issues and suitable solutions easily.

5 Steps to process improvement methodology implementation

Process improvements improve productivity and profitability—provided you implement them correctly.

Here is a step-by-step rundown to implement an effective process improvement plan:

Step 1: Identify your end goal and improvement opportunity

The first step of process improvement planning is establishing a quantifiable goal. For example, getting products faster in the customer’s hands. Once you know your goal, examine existing workflows related to achieving that goal.

Admittedly, it isn’t easy to identify the right improvement opportunities. Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Look for signs where current processes are failing and identify bottleneck locations.
  • Create a process map detailing your entire workflow from start to finish to visualize your current processes. This will serve as a reference point to catch failing points easily.

At the end of this step, you’ll have a better understanding of your current processes and at what points they fail to add value.

Step 2: Get stakeholder buy-in

Bring in people directly involved in executing the processes you aim to improve. This way, they’ll know what’s happening, and you can simultaneously get their buy-in. Make sure you also get approval from other stakeholders to avoid potential conflict down the line.

Here are some handy tips to obtain stakeholder buy-in:

  • Explain the rationale behind your process improvements. People are naturally resistant to change, so you need to prove how your efforts will deliver value to get buy-in.
  • Clarify all roles to remove any ambiguity surrounding the process improvements. Ensure the teammates directly involved in executing the processes take out time to transition to new processes.

When talking about buy-in, you also want to consider your customers. If the process improvement is external, inform your customers in advance of your intended changes to avoid confusion and, more importantly, a bad user experience after implementing the changes.

Step 3: Create a process improvements strategy 

This step focuses on outlining how to implement the process improvement cycle.

Alongside determining the required changes to enhance processes, you (and your team) must also decide how to measure the effectiveness of the changes, evaluate project management risks, and potential impact on customer experience. 

Once you’ve vetted all the elements and identified the right course of action, revise previous process mapping and create new training materials to ensure your employees know how to proceed post-process improvement.

Scribe is the easiest way to standardize and automate process documentation and standadize your processes. 

Get started by downloading the free Chrome extension to capture your new workflow or process from start to finish. Scribe will automatically create a visual, step-by-step guide, complete with text and screenshots, which you can then share instantly with your teammates or add it to any tool.

There’s also a handy 'Pages' feature that lets you combine multiple Scribes into one and create more detailed documentation. Check out a Scribe that shows how you can create a Page:

Step 4: Test the process improvements 

Next, it’s time to evaluate how your newly modified procedure unfolds in real time.

Consider all common scenarios for the specific workflow. Be sure to use a large enough sample size of test cases so that your testing results are accurate. Then collect feedback throughout the testing to determine where further improvements can be made, if any.

Once the testing is done and the results prove the new procedure creates meaningful and measurable improvement, implement it across your organization.

Step 5: Monitor & optimize

Your job isn’t over after implementing a process improvement methodology. Daily monitoring is still needed to catch and fix issues you may have missed during the testing phase.

Think of it as an opportunity to further enhance the process improvements.

Compare the results of the improved process against the goals identified in Step 1. You can also use the outcome derived from the old process to validate changes.

While optimizing the process, you’ll find yourself circling back through the process improvement cycle. But, at the same time, the enhancement opportunity should be fewer than the first round of changes to allow for subsequent iterations to move quickly.

Repeat this cycle of continuous optimizations until you meet or exceed your benchmarks for the process. 

The final word on process improvement methodologies

Clearer processes and better workflows directly impact your team’s productivity. 

Now that you know the best process improvement methodologies, start experimenting with your business processes and put the techniques into practice. If you don’t find a single silver bullet to address all issues immediately, consider combining different process improvement methodologies to create something unique and suitable for your business.

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