As you (may) know, quality management cannot be achieved ignoring your business processes and their well-functioning. It is not surprising that one of the first recommendations for ISO-certification is the knowledge – and logically also the mapping – of your business processes.
Hence, a good start is to install quality management at the process level. So, you may begin with improving the quality of 1 or a few business processes, and incrementally extend your quality management initiative to all business processes.
These are the 9 steps to boost process quality, which are no rocket science but rather common sense and require a bit of analytical mind, as you will read.
1. Identify the process outputs and/or objectives
Outputs are the deliverables – e.g. a physical product, a document, data, etc. – generated by the process. It is about what the process is supposed to deliver. They are actually the ‘reason of being’ of the process.
Objectives might be different, but at least as important – if not even more important. An output may be OK, i.e. “according to defined specifications”, while a customer is not satisfied. E.g. because it is not according to his/her expectations. A dissatisfied customer can hardly be an objective, can it…?
Example: You have ordered a meal in a restaurant. The food (= delivered output) was fine and tasty, but the fact that you had to wait for 1 hour before being served, and moreover the waiter was rather impolite to you, caused an overall dissatisfaction. I hope this is not the objective of the restaurant’s food service process…
2. Determine the process customer(s)
This is about whom the process should serve. Mind that one and the same process may have different types of customers. E.g. the restaurant might serve business people coming for a business lunch, while it also serves other persons, like couples coming for a dinner date, or families with children, etc. And these different customer types, having specific needs, might lead to different process variants. So, when welcoming business customers, you will not inform them that there is a playground for children; while you would do it for parents coming with their children.
Be aware that process customers are not necessarily end customers, say external customers who pay for ordering products or services. Most of an organisation’s business processes will have internal customers instead. However, all process actors, contributing to the process execution – as well of all actors of all ‘upstream’ processes – best know the expectations of the final, external customers as well.
Coming back to our restaurant example: the Cook as main contributor to the cooking process – which is upstream the delivery process – best knows what end customers like. Even though his direct customers are the waiters, who will serve the food.
3. Assess the quality criteria or requirements
In Lean-Six Sigma this is better known as Critical-To-Quality (CTQ) tree. Why a tree…? Well, just like the hierarchy of the folders & files on your PC, quality criteria may be represented hierarchically as well, so to drill down to measurable criteria. The llustration here at the left is an example of a CTQ tree for our restaurant. These criteria or requirements are obviously important – read necessary – to assess whether process outputs or process objectives have been met.
Mind that CTQ’s are also applicable to processes that deliver an intermediate output, like a pre-assembled component, either produced internally or by an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). Like the cooked meal which is prepared by the Cook, but not yet served to the customer.
You now probably understand that a CTQ for an upstream process – e.g. cooking for our restaurant example – will largely be impacted by the CTQ of the downstream process – e.g. serving the customer. In some (if not most of) cases, the largest part of the CTQ of the end process will be inherited by the upstream processes. But not necessarily all criteria.
Assume that the food taste of a spaghetti is mainly impacted by being “al dente”. The serving process will not impact this requirement, as this is typical related to the cooking time of the pasta. On the other hand, assume that the meal was served too cold, because the waiter did not get the spaghetti rapidly, and the meal stayed for a while in the kitchen ‘waiting for the waiter’; but unfortunately cooling down meanwhile. In this case, the cooking process is not the cause of this too cold served meal, is it…?
Even though high quality and low cost are often considered as contradictory, mind that – a limited (acceptable) – cost might also be a quality requirement. Particularly if your customers expect a low or fair price.
4. Identify the process risks and how to mitigate them
Find out the most probable risks in your process which (possibly) jeopardize the compliance to the defined quality criteria. Again, these are not only factors impacting the quality of the product or service itself, but also the timely delivery of the output(s) and the cost of the output or of the process.
Like for each risk management approach, assess their occurrence probability and their impact severeness, so you know to which risk you should pay the most attention and what measure you should take correspondingly to mitigate them. You may also have a look at this previous blog on how to identify and to manage process risks.
5. Determine how to measure & monitor the quality criteria
You should obviously not only focus on the control of the output(s); whether they are final or intermediate outputs. Conditions in the course of the process execution are at least as important.
If the restaurant’s Cook does not store the meat at a reasonable temperature, e.g. below 7°C, you may guess what the consequences might be. Even if the meal will not taste badly, it might cause food poisoning for the customer.
6. Assign a Process Owner
A person taking responsibility over the entire process is strongly recommended, even essential, to fight possible silo and/or “throw it over the wall” mentality or behavior. This also means that the process owner must have the authority needed, and thus must be supported by senior management. No need to mention that this is often a challenge in a strongly hierarchized organisation, where functions and titles or career opportunities seem to be more important than process outputs and customers. This often implies a cultural change, indeed.
7. Log any potential improvement
There are basically 2 groups (types) of potential improvements: events with a negative impact, like a defect, a customer complaint, etc.; called non-conformities. The other group, having a rather more positive and pro-active trigger, consists of being alert for any future improvement.
a. Register nonconformities
A non-conformity occurs when the specified or expected process result was not achieved or deviated from. In the restaurant example, this might be
- a wrong meal, e.g. another is served than the one ordered by the customer
- a meal that is served (too) cold while it is supposed to be served hot
The sooner a nonconformity is spotted – preferably before the output reaches the customer – the better. See this previous blog to read why.
b. Capture innovative ideas
Not only the management of nonconformities is a driver to a higher quality. Any suggested innovation, either product or service or process innovation, obtained from the external or internal customer, but also from process actors as well should be registered for further improvement investigation. Needless to tell that this latest will be the most effective in a “no blame” culture, fostering improvement ideas.
Assume a customer of the restaurant suggesting ingredients for an even better taste. Why not proposing the Cook to try it out?
For more experienced process owners, another way of (process) innovation is to analyse the business process itself and to consider the process improvement patterns as described in this publication on systemic ideation (particularly pages 37 & 38).
8. Regularly analyse and take action on improvements
You should, of course, not update this improvement log for fun; but as a work tool. This regular consideration of improvements – also known as Kaizen in Lean management – is the essence of continuous improvement. To succeed in determining the appropriate actions, the process owner best involves a representative of each group of stakeholders. Thus not only the (either internal or external) customer, but every process participant, including the (either internal or external) supplier.
Another aspect is the prioritisation of the several process improvements, according to, on one hand their respective urgency, and on the other their potential benefits.
Even more important – particularly with regards to nonconformities – is to take actions addressing the real root cause. This is where the 5-why technique – and ishikawa (or fish bone) diagrams ideally come into play. See also this previous blog which illustrates how to use an ishikawa diagram with regards to quality management.
9. Implement & monitor the improvements
Improvement actions will, of course, only be valuable once implemented. Their implementation will also serve as a validation whether or not the actions taken are effective, and also whether they address the root cause. Indeed, if not, the issue may ‘just move’ to another process step, or even to another business process. Or even worse: to the customer.
That’s why monitoring the improvement actions – and the overall process – is key.
No need to mention that this is a regular, repetitive, closed-loop activity (actually a process) on its own. Especially for above steps 7 to 9, which should be organised rather frequently by the process owner. Though as business processes are subject to change, the previous steps – as from step 1 – deserve some regular, even though less frequent, attention as well.
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