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The Logistics of Process Change

Written By: Gene Brockmeier, CFPIM, CIRM

While preparing for an APICS chapter presentation last year, I reflected back on the manufacturing projects I've been involved in, searching for the basic reasons why those projects were successful. Having been involved with quite a variety of projects including inventory, shop floor control, hazardous materials, MRP, procurement etc., I was looking for those attributes common to projects which had made them successful.

Why is it that some projects struggle and fail or never reach their full potential? Examining project implementations and change in general revealed several interesting findings. It's been my experience that one of the key elements to past project successes has been the project champion. Someone to sponsor change in the given process. Someone with a "perceived need" to change their processes....to implement improvement. That person with the vision of the future, the drive and empowerment to make change to a process. Included in empowerment was decision making, organizational and budget authority. It just seems that those projects which have struggled were missing this key ingredient. Poor decision making, fear of the future, comfort with present, lack of perceived need to change, no authorization to make change, lack of budget authority all seem to be major impediments to implementing change.

Given that we had an empowered project champion, what other characteristics contributed to our success? Continuing to examine change, I realized that change is like going somewhere and consists of three logistical aspects:

  • Where you're at
  • Where you're going
  • How to get there
  • The more I thought about these "logistics" as I'll call them, the more I came to realize how important each of them are, what they're comprised of, and how they interact in order to successfully implement change.

    Whether they realized it or not, past project champions knew where they were going. One way or another, they had developed a vision of what their processes could and should be. Primarily, they examined the problems that we faced day to day (where we were at) and through education, analysis and design (and sometimes the school of hard knocks), determined what their processes should be (where we were going). What remained was how we were going to make the change.

    Where you're at
    For the most, past project champions knew "where we were at" in terms of day-to-day processes and problems and the measurements (right or wrong) that we used. They also knew the problems and their source. It should be noted that the larger the company or organization, the more difficult it will be to determine and correct root cause problems. Education of the project sponsor and team is crucial to an analysis of the root cause of problems and impediments to process improvement.

    The scope of the project helps to delineate which facets we're going to improve, identify the decision makers and funding providers and key processes affected. Starting a project without identifying and educating the key players, obtaining their commitment and approval to make change is step one on the road to failure. Having been on both sides of the support issue, I can attest to the progress that can be made with support from knowledgeable committed management and the struggle which awaits you without it. But you must be kept in mind that without a perceived need to change, instilled by a vision of the future, improvement will be slow coming.

    The successful process owners that I've worked with wanted to simplify, smooth out, and remove problems from their current processes and products. What this entails is receiving high-quality inputs, removing non-valued process, eliminating problems at their root cause and working towards customer defined quality. Too often projects run into difficulty trying to correct root causes of problems because they are outside the immediate control of the project. A project must have complete commitment to process improvement from the management structure. Without it, fixing problems at the source becomes constant struggle because sufficient leverage cannot be brought to bear on the sources of problems. Past successes have shown that projects perceived as a "company effort" are a key ingredient to effective change. The attitude should be taken that it's all right to have a present problem but plans should be made to fix it as soon as possible.

    Where you're going
    When starting the change process, a quick assessment of where you're going in terms of improvement is required. Education, experience, knowledge are three enablers of determining where you're going. Developing the vision of the future for the project should include the following definitions:

  • What are the key facets of the business that we want to improve?
  • What are the problems needing resolution?
  • What measurements and values should be our goals?
  • What would "perfect world" processes look like?
  • These provide the foundation for the problems to be addressed in preparing our vision of where we want to go. A dose of sanity has to be included so that we have a "doable" chunk and don't attempt to eat the elephant at one sitting. Decomposing a business facet into its major sub-functions is a key activity in process redesign. It breaks down the process into component functions and helps to isolate those areas where improvement needs to be made. A focused analysis of sub-functions should reveal problem areas and where significant improvement can be made.

    For example, a decomposition of shop floor control processes might reveal chronic problems with tool availability. A "customer oriented" analysis of the tooling function should indicate where problems exist and the vision of the tooling processes of the future. An analysis of the tooling function would include:

  • Tooling customer (internal) identification
  • Required tooling outputs (tools, gages, forms, documents)
  • Tooling processes
  • Inputs to the tooling processes (materials, schedules, designs)
  • Vendors to the tooling processes (internal and external)
  • Reengineering the process would look not only at the process under our control, but also those vendor process that supply us until we have a complete view of all of the processes that are required to create our product. Modifying the relationships between organizations, processes and computing systems will be required to effect significant change and it is for this reason, that top management commitment and understanding must be in place prior to undertaking change.

    Try to start the improvement process at the beginning of the life cycle of a business facet. If you begin improvement at the front-end sub-processes, you should realize improvement at that process and throughout the remaining downstream processes. If you start at the downstream processes, you will have to work around the problems that have been passed on from leading processes and will end up working around the problems that have been passed to you.

    How to get there
    The third logistic of change, "How to get there" drives us to establish and accept a project methodology to get us from Point A to Point B. Without an accepted, workable methodology many projects will be subject to what I refer to as "wandering in unison". A methodology must be focused, straight forward and easily understood by all. It must be sellable to management. In order to determine and define activity completion and document processes and decisions as you go, I would recommend a "deliverable based" methodology to remove questions about project decisions, new procedures and directions and provided definitive proof of progress.

    Large projects require a tremendous amount of leadership, commitment and communication. Having a documented methodology, schedule and project plan in place is crucial to keep a large number of project team members focused and moving in the same direction. Development of an agreed upon plan of "how we're going to get there" is crucial to the success of a project. It provides common understand and can be reused for the next improvement effort. The project plan provides an understanding of "how we're doing this" to support downstream project activities. A logical progression by which progress towards the project goals can be assessed. It also helps to provide the "vision" of tasks necessary to get from "where you're at" to "where you're going".

    Implementing change can be a frustrating and expensive experience. Understanding the logistics of change, designing the vision of the future, and having a methodology in place to guide you are necessary building blocks to achieving success.

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