Are you solving problems or improving the process? In other words, if you find a problem in a process and implement change to fix it, then did you improve the process? Well, maybe… Sure, solving problems may be an important thing to do, but it is not the same as improving processes. Why is this so?
Solving problems is more about resolving local issues and fails to take into account the interactions with other processes or the system as a whole. Fixing the local problem may not produce the desired result and, worse, may create an entirely new set of problems. That’s right — if you haven’t considered the effect of your fix on other processes in your whole system of processes, you could make the situation worse. It’s like driving around in your car without a map or a GPS, looking for a town or street address you’ve never been to. If you find the place, it will have taken a lot of time and gasoline and more than a bit of luck to get there. More likely, you’ll end up somewhere you don’t want to be.
Improving processes is about resolving global issues or outcomes for the whole system of processes. It’s about focusing on the customers’ outcomes. To improve processes, you use a map, a process map, with a picture of the process interactions, outcomes, and activities involved. The process map helps you focus on what’s important and what’s not. The idea is to analyze the impact of any changes you make on the global outcomes and less on the local problem.
Improving processes is about prioritizing problems and fixing only those that improve global outcomes. It is not about fixing any problem that arises. In fact, you may be better off leaving some problems as problems because there are more important uses of your time.
Yet, human nature being what it is demonstrates that people spend 80% of their time on solving problems and only 20% on improving the process. It’s the old Pareto principle (80/20 rule) again. Solving problems provides a sense of accomplishment, immediate gratification, and reward. Most compensation systems are based on problems solved instead of outcomes achieved.
For example, expenses in a business are considered a local problem. As a manager, if you reduce your expenses, save money, and control your budget then most managers would be rewarded for such good behavior, regardless of the revenue or profit impact of your action. After all, such outcomes are ‘beyond your control’, it’s got to be a sales or marketing problem if revenue is impacted.
Improving processes is a result of changes made to a process’ design. Well-designed processes produce outcomes that are expected, efficient, and keep customers happy. By comparison, solving problems does not focus on design at all. Instead, the focus is on patching the current design, reworking unexpected outcomes, or quick fixes to customer unhappiness. And it never ends. You will be constantly patching a bad design until the design is changed.
Root cause is what we are looking for to change a bad design. Solving problems is a reactive approach seeking to understand and resolve the undesirable event. While, process improvement is a proactive approach seeking to understand the cause and stop the re-occurrence of an undesirable event. The only way to stop a re-occurrence is to change the design itself.
Many businesses solve problems that arise in reaction to operational events, management directions, tight deadlines, or complaints. In these situations fixing the problem is all that matters. There is no time to get at the root of the problem and prevent it from reoccurring.
Improving processes is about process simplification. Reducing defects and variance or shrinking cycle times and speeding up a process involve removing needless activities, time delays or design flaws. On the other hand, solving problems usually adds steps. If you feel like you need to add an inspection step or more sign-off forms then you are problem solving. Problems do not have to occur. Thinking that they do is a problem solving mentality. Process improvement is about prevention and avoidance.
Improving processes is about identifying changes worthy of investment to implement permanently. In contrast, problem-solving results in short-term solutions due to its narrow focus on local problems and its “fix it” rather than “prevent it” approach. Even then, the numerous fixes just don’t add up to significant gains. They are nothing more than isolated solutions with little connection to the organization’s goals. Problem solving becomes a diversion, preventing an organization from making impactful changes. For problem solving to work, it needs to be a part of process improvement.
Everyone starts by solving problems. But for lasting change that impacts the bottom line, you need a systematic approach focused on the right outcomes.
The steps involved in improving processes: