Process Improvement Projects

Quality has two major thrusts:  customer satisfaction and continuous improvement.  In delivering and meeting customer needs, we must constantly strive to improve the product offering itself as well as enhancing accompanying services.  Quality is inextricably linked with new product development (NPD) and with effective project management.

There are several steps involved in improving a process to deliver quality goods and services to a customer to the target market.  Documentation of a process improvement allows a team to clarify its objective for an NPD or process improvement project and validates success.  Steps in a process improvement project follow.

  1. Create a project charter
  2. Understand the current state
  3. Measure the process
  4. Analyze the data
  5. Test solutions
  6. Implement the best solution
  7. Monitor the process for continuous improvement

Create a Project Charter

Creating a project charter should be the first step in any process improvement project.  The project charter authorizes the project manager to start work on the imitative, to expend resources, and to acquire a cross-functional team to do the work.  The project charter may be formal, using a corporate template, or may be informal, simply documenting roles and responsibilities, objectives, and expected outcomes.

The project charter is a reference document that establishes the scope of work, as well.  It is inevitable (during project execution) that either a customer stakeholder or an internal team member will try to expand the scope of work “because it doesn’t cost anything to add this little feature.”  Unfortunately, there is a cost – no matter how small the addition is – a cost in time, money and/or equipment.  In project management, adding to the scope of work is called “scope creep” or ”gold plating” depending on whether the customer or a project team member has expanded the requirements of the project.

Perhaps one of the most important parts of a project charter document is the roles and responsibilities section.  Roles and responsibilities lay out who the team members and stakeholders are, what their influence is, and how they will interact to accomplish the work of the product or process improvement project.  Full-time team members and leaders are clearly designated and are committed to the work of the project.  Managers and supervisors value a project charter because it allows them to plan resource utilization over both the short-and medium-term.

Understand the Current State

While the project charter lays out the objectives of the improvement project, the team must understand the scope and scale of the problem.  It is practically impossible to systematically improve a product or process without understanding the starting point.  If your goal is to improve new product sales by 15% over the prior year, you have to understand the prior year sales data.  If you want to reduce cycle time for NPD, you have to first understand what the current cycle time is.  Metrics, as discussed in the next section, help us to gather baseline and benchmarking data; however, to be really successful in NPD and process improvement, the team needs to understand the flow of a customer’s journey from start to end.

In quality management, the flow of a process is often represented by a “swim-lane” diagram.  This tool is so named because each stakeholder in the process is assigned a row in the chart, loosely resembling the lanes marked in a swimming pool.  In product development, we use a similar chart called a “customer journey map,” where the rows might instead represent external contacts, systems, or processes that a consumer encounters as s/he goes through a purchasing decision.  Note that it is important to map the actual process by observing it firsthand.  Procedures and policies may not be implemented in real life as they were designed and documented originally.

Both tools (the swim-lane diagram and a customer journey map) use flow chart symbols to indicate process entry and exit points, actions, and decisions.  It should go without saying that a goal of process improvement is to simplify a customer’s journey in selecting, purchasing, and using a new product or service.  Throughout the process improvement project, this current state map will be used to understand how things function today.  The chart will be modified to test for streamlining the process in a later step.

Measure the Process

As indicated, understanding a process and the flow of a customer’s actions and decisions is only a start.  In order to determine if we’ve really improved a product or process, we have to measure the difference between the final result and the starting point.  Metrics validate actions and justify investment in the project.  And if you don’t know the starting point, you cannot know if the process is really improved based on your actions.  No one decides to lose weight without knowing the starting point or without setting a goal.  Likewise, an Olympic athlete does not seek to improve his/her time in an event without first establishing their baseline time.

Measure the current state should include a precise procedure so that improvement can be validated.  The metric should not be changed throughout the execution of the improvement project to maintain consistency.  If the process improvement project seeks to increase sales in a specific geographic region, for example, then the improvement can only be measured against this same starting point.  Adding or eliminating neighborhoods or cities to the geographic region could skew the metric and invalidate the process improvement.  The metric should simple to calculate and understood by all team members.

Benchmarking is also a useful tool in assessing the process.  You can compare internal metrics with publically-available information on competitors, for instance.  Benchmarking can also be used across industries to transfer best practices.  While your company may be selling steel pipes, you can still learn about inventory management from Amazon and Apple.

Analyze the Data

Once you’ve framed the problem, understood the current practices, and gathered metrics on the process, you must analyze the data to fully grasp the scope and scale of the improvement opportunity.  Many times, the data will justify our “gut feel” of what needs to be improved, but often the analysis of the data can offer surprising, novel insights as well.  We will apply a variety of quality management tools to assess the current state data.  The seven most common quality tools are:

  1. Check sheet,
  2. Process flow chart,
  3. Cause-and-effect diagram,
  4. Histogram,
  5. Pareto chart,
  6. Scatter diagram, and
  7. Statistical process control chart.

We will discuss just a couple of these tools here.  The process flow chart (also known as a swim-lane diagram or customer journey map) was described in an earlier section.

Cause-and-Effect Diagram

The cause-and-effect diagram is also known as a fishbone diagram because it loosely resembles the skeleton of a fish.  It is a graph that first divides causes to a problem (effect) among categories and then sub-divides these categories into specific causes which can be addressed via the product or process improvement project.  Categories are often identified by the “4Ms” (manpower or people, machine, measurement, and materials).  Other categories to consider as potential causes for a problem include the environment and the process itself.

Pareto Chart

The Pareto chart is based on the 80/20 rule.  It is a diagram that tallies percentages of defects from various causes to identify major quality issues.  Pareto charts are specific types of histograms that identify and rank the defects and problems that occur most frequently in a product or service.  The project improvement team will address the causes of problems that create the greatest number of defects first.

Note that no single quality tool will lead to the “right” answer.  However, analyzing the current state data using a combination of quality tools will lead to a better understanding of the scope and scale of the problem, and will allow the team to address the largest causes of process failures first.

Other quality tools are used to assess potential solutions.  These include:

  • Affinity charts,
  • Relation diagrams,
  • Tree diagrams,
  • Matrix diagrams,
  • Arrow charts, and
  • Gantt charts.

We will highlight a few of these tools commonly used in process improvement as well.

Affinity Charts

An affinity chart is used to organize a large number of ideas into natural categories or groups.  Often the solution ideas are generated in a collaborative environment, such as in a brainstorming session.  The affinity chart allows the large number of ideas to be categorized into relationships that can be narrowed down for a study of a specific solution to the problem.  Using sticky notes can facilitate generating an affinity chart, since different ideas can be described on a single sticky note and they can then be easily moved around to demonstrate relationships with different categories of potential solutions.

Matrix Diagram

Matrix diagrams show the relationships between just a few groups of information and can give an impression of roles, responsibilities, and metrics.  In product development, matrix diagrams are also known as quality function diagrams (QFD) and can be quite complicated to develop when the input data set is large.  However, in a situation to improve a product’s attractiveness in the market, for example, a matrix diagram can be quite effective to note the strongest relationships between customer needs and product features.

Gantt Chart

Gantt charts are primarily used as scheduling tools and have gained substantial popularity through software such as Microsoft Project and Oracle Primavera.  The Gantt chart is a bar chart showing the length of time a task is expected to take in order to be declared complete.  Modern software makes the Gantt chart ubiquitous in project planning as it allows tasks to be assigned to specific resources and roll-up of tasks into milestones and deliverables.

After the process improvement project team has thoroughly analyzed the current state using a variety of data, measurements, and tools, and has identified potential solutions using quality management and brainstorming techniques, the team should test these potential solutions.  The goal is to determine the optimum improvement based on any constraints noted in the project charter.

Test the Solutions

Sometimes there is an obvious solution to improve the process:  a low-cost, easy-to-implement change for which the team and operations has buy-in.  For many other process improvements, the “right” or “best” solution is not as apparent.  Testing of the suggested solutions will generate more data and subsequent measurements can determine which to implement on a permanent basis.

Design of experiments (DOE) is a statistical-based tools that allows multiple parameters to be changed simultaneously.  DOE can speed testing of potential solutions over a traditional method of testing one variable at a time.  Planning for a DOE test requires more effort than a traditional, one-at-a-time test, but there is a significant savings in the overall number and types of tests required.

Pilot tests are used in small groups or under isolated conditions to evaluate potential solutions as well.  A pilot test uses a real environment and can assess how the potential solution will work in these conditions.  Real customers are using real products and evaluating their satisfaction with the features and attributes.  It is easier to adjust and improve the changed process or product on a small scale then after the solution is implemented across the corporation or launched into a full-scale market.

Implement the Best Solution

Once a process solution has been identified and successfully tested, is should be implemented throughout the organization.  This will require training personnel on the new procedures or manufacturing techniques.  A sufficient time period should be included in the project plan to account for learning to occur.  This includes both classroom training and on-the-job learning.

The team will have streamlined the process based on data gathered from the pilot test; however, they need to remain open to feedback from the organization as a whole, including all staff levels and departments.  An online university recently changed the term start of classes from Sunday to Tuesday based on student feedback that a lot of holidays occur on Mondays.  Yet, the university failed to pilot test the change or gather feedback from instructors.  The change forces instructors to post grades on the weekend leaving them rushed to accurately grade lengthy homework assignments and taking away family time.  Staged roll-outs of process and product improvements allows an opportunity for continuous improvement to build trust and validate the team’s efforts.

Monitor the Process

As the last example illustrates, a product or process improvement project is never really “done”.  The quality principle of kaizen dictates that we continue to study processes and products to constantly improve, seeking the highest levels of customer satisfaction.  Auditing a process routinely after a change has been implemented can demonstrate if it continues to be executed as planned.  Teams will want to continue gathering data and analyzing process metrics (via statistical process control charts, for instance) to determine that the change endures in delivering the desired improvement outcome.  As the change leads to improvement in the product or process, the team will adapt the current state process flow charts and metrics to understand if additional improvements are necessary to continue to drive toward 100% customer satisfaction.

The Process Improvement Project

Product and process development must always be focused on delivering a quality experience for the customer.  Customers may be external customers or users, as in traditional NPD work, or could be internal such as in an engineering or operational improvement project.  Regardless of the scope or work, following the recommend steps in the process improvement project will help the team achieve success.

To learn more about process improvement for product development, please join us in an upcoming workshop on innovation.  Note that we are continuing to transition our training business to while maintaining the consulting business here at  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us at 281-280-8717 or

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