As a Lean Sensei I have conducted Gemba walks through value-creating processes in service organizations. And the service processes I see — the more I find myself asking, “Who designed this wasteful, inadequate, inflexible, uneven, and disconnected value stream in the first place? “And who is responsible for its performance? ” The answer in most cases is “No One.”
To be fair to services organizations I have visited, I must note that process thinking – note that I use the terms “process” and “value stream” interchangeably — are a whole lot easier in the factory. The product is there for everyone to see and the industrial, manufacturing, and production engineering departments and professions are all in place. Additionally, most manufacturing organizations periodically introduce new products, involving at least some new manufacturing methods, which offer the opportunity to rethink the entire value stream. The proof that these value streams are the easiest to transform is that process thinking declines rapidly in manufacturing companies once we move from the factory floor with its physical transformations to the support groups and their transactional transformations. Product development, sales, purchasing, human resources, and finance are all processes — series of actions that must be performed correctly at the right time in the proper sequence to create the value needed by their customers. Yet the design of these transactional value streams often receive little or no attention even in companies that have become very good at mapping and then redesigning their factory value streams.
Whatever your task, managing customer support in a bank, or claims adjusting in an insurance company, or the flow of patients through a hospital, the chances are enormous that you need to rethink a value stream that was never designed with any rigor, and for which no one has clear responsibility. Many of these processes on the face of it just happened and have continued to happen for years or decades so that the deficient current state seems authorized in some way by history. “We’ve always done it this way. But we are smart and work around problems every day.”
What is missing here is a value-stream architect. This is the person, ideally a line manager given a special assignment, who is asked to take responsibility for fundamentally re-thinking an existing value stream to create a lean value-creating process. (This may be a primary value stream directly touching the customer, such as product development or fulfillment from order to delivery, or a support stream necessary to operate some primary stream.) The first step is to determine customer need and the type of process required to meet the need. Then the value stream can be mapped by walking along the stream with everyone touching it and the current state can be determined along with the gap in meeting customer need while permitting the organization to prosper. This analysis will suggest potential improvements and the architect (value-stream manager) then strives for consensus on the best alternative to pursue, followed by experiments using the continuous improvement cycle. Plan-Do-Check-Act, to determine if the alternative works.
This all sounds difficult because it is. Most organizations tackle process improvement as a staff activity at isolated points along extended value streams and often without considering what is truly important to the external or internal customers or the implications for the entire organization. Consequently, the most important processes — the ones flowing across the organization — often are dismissed and, even when they are, the improved process cannot be sustained because the new process is not understood by the line managers who do not see maintaining and improving the entire value stream as their responsibility. This justifies designating a value stream architect (a line manager) for each improved process to continually monitor its performance and continually improve its performance.
Who are your value-stream architects? Have you delegated managerial responsibility for the processes in your organization?
Willie L. Carter is the President/CEO of Quantum Associates, Inc, an independent process improvement consultancy focused on enriching and providing value by removing waste from work processes. He has over four decades of experience helping organizations create value and is a Certified Lean Sensei, Certified Quality Improvement Facilitator, Certified ISO 9000 Lead Assessor, Certified Quality Professional and author of “Process Improvement for Administrative Departments – The Key to Internal Customer Satisfaction” available on Amazon.com.