Now that the team understands what’s causing the problem, how will they solve it? Once the project team has sifted through the data and studied the process to verify the root causes, it’s time to develop solutions. This is the fun part!
The Improve Phase is where the team gets to solve the problem. They develop solutions, pilot the process changes, implement their ideas and collect data to confirm they made a measurable difference. This is where their hard work pays off.
If they’ve done their work right, they’ll have the opportunity to create innovative and elegant solutions. They’ll positively impact the baseline measure, create better work life for employees and a better product or service experience for customers.
Gather the Best Ideas to Fix the Problem
Throughout the life of the project, the team has been gathering ideas—from process participants, colleagues, customers, suppliers and leadership. Problem-solving opportunities generally start cropping up early on in the project. Teams come into the project with ideas and immediately find more opportunities during the Process (Gemba) Walk in the Define Phase. With a good Solution Parking Lot they’ll amass a useful collection of countermeasures by the Improve Phase.
It’s good to research internally but it’s also good to look beyond the process for innovations. Other departments, other business units or even other companies and industries may have solved a similar problem. The team can benchmark and cast a wide net for ways to address the root cause of the problem.
They could also revisit the many classic solutions developed in the Quality world. There may be new ways to solve the problem but there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. Many teams draw from time-tested techniques like 5S, Work Cell Design, Setup Reduction, Kanbans and other well-defined methods to improve process flow.
Tools: Brainstorming, Benchmarking and Classic Lean Improvements
Select the Practical Solutions
In some cases, a project team can employ as many improvements as they see fit. But given the time and effort involved in most process changes, it makes sense to apply some criteria to make good choices between options. Tools like the Solution Selection Matrix allow them to list the possibilities and assess each one to make the best decisions. They can also use the Impact Effort Matrix to assess which solutions provide the most impact for the least cost or effort.
Tools: Weighted Criteria Matrix and Impact Effort Matrix
Develop Maps of Processes Based on Different Solutions
Solutions often reduce issues like rework loops, waste and wait times. That means the team has refined the process and removed or altered steps. Once they’ve determined the new flow, the team creates a revised map of the process which is also known as a To-Be Map. The new map guides the team’s efforts and provides a quick reference as well as a training tool for new employees making it easier for everyone to learn the new process.
Tools: To-Be Map, Value Stream Map and Swimlane Map
Test and Refine the Best Solutions
In order to ensure they develop the best countermeasures, the team may run mini-testing cycles known as PDCA or Plan Do Check Act to refine the solutions while collecting valuable Stakeholder feedback. These cycles are a great way to find out if small improvements are viable in a fast and low impact way.
They can also consider the unintended consequences of making changes to the process. Any changes, even good ones, introduce an element of risk. Tools like the Failures Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA) help the team think through the potential impacts of altering the steps and features of the process and plan ahead.
Implement the Solution(s)
Making sure solutions are successful requires careful planning. The team has to consider logistics, training, documentation change management and communication plans. Although it often feels counterintuitive, the more time the team spends planning, the faster process participants will adapt to the new process.
For large-scale implementations, the team can run a pilot to ensure the changes work prior to implementation—it’s a good practice to create an Implementation Plan. Running pilots and including others prior to making process changes is a great way to build a sense of ownership of the new process. Acceptance of change is equally important to the quality of the improvement.
Tools: Pilot Checklist and Implementation Plan
Measure to Validate Improvement
Once the team has implemented their changes to the process, they can collect data to check whether or not they have improved the baseline. This can take anywhere from 1 week to 4 months depending on the length of the process cycle. Once the team demonstrates that their solutions resulted in measurable improvement, it’s time to celebrate success!
The team should recognize themselves as well as all the process participants who helped with the implementation. It’s important to give credit and spread the good news. A little momentum goes a long way. Then the team can move on to the Control Phase.