By Richard M. Franza, Ph.D. Guest Columnist

Ever heard of a PFD? Rick Franza tells you how it can improve your business processes.

Two weeks ago in this space, I introduced you to using process analysis to improve efficiency and effectiveness in your businesses and in your life.

In that column, I took you through the initial, foundational steps of process analysis/improvement by using, as an example, the process of bathing my daughters when they were very young.

You may recall the example highlighted the basics of process improvement: identifying your customers’ expectations; determining the measures that will let you know if your process is performing as needed and as expected by your customer; and understanding where a process begins and ends and how it impacts other processes.

Once you have identified these pivotal steps, it’s time to move into the “nuts and bolts” of process analysis, beginning with drawing what we call a Process Flow Diagram, also known as a PFD or “Process Map.” We have all heard the expression that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and this is especially true in process analysis.

A PFD basically shows all the steps in a process in the order they take place, along with notations highlighting decision points in the process as well as the points where the person or thing moving through the process waits for the next step.

The PFD allows you to visualize the time each step takes, and identify where potential bottlenecks might occur. Bottlenecks are impediments caused by items/people arriving at a rate faster than your ability to process them. This causes wait times that delay the total process time and often leads to service that is slower than customers expect.

Being able to visualize your process in the form of a diagram or map will give you a new perspective, particularly for processes with steps occurring in multiple locations.

Once you have drawn your PFD, you are ready to scrutinize your process. As you start the analysis, it is time to go back and recollect discussions with your customers and remember what is important to them.

In the example of bathing my children, what was most important to the primary customer (my wife) was the “quality of the output” (i.e., the cleanliness and safety of my children) and lack of “collateral damage” (i.e., messiness in the bathroom). Thus, my process had to deliver on those primary expectations; efficiency and timeliness was less important to my primary customer.

In your business, however, efficiency is always a factor – even if it may not be important to your customer. As a business, you want to be as cost-efficient as possible, because even if price is not a primary customer concern, lowering operating costs will always increase your profit margin.

In the case of bathing my children, efficiency led to quicker baths, which gave me more time to do other things, such as grade papers (or something more enjoyable). However, because spending quality time with my daughters was a benefit of the bathing process, I did not stress being overly efficient.

You should have “feedback mechanisms” or other measures to determine if your process is achieving what your customer wants. For processes related to services, you should have methods in place to query your customers. In manufacturing, you will need to have quantitative measures in place.

For the bathing process, my wife was never reluctant to give me feedback on the quality of my output, or any messes I made performing the process. So, if there was a problem, I could use a PFD to see what steps might be causing the problem. Similarly, if I thought the process was inefficient, I could analyze why certain steps took too long.

If you have problems in your process and are struggling to identify the cause, a great tool to use is the “fishbone diagram.” This “cause-and-effect” illustration enumerates the possible reasons for a particular problem. It is called a fishbone diagram because it looks like a fish skeleton, with the problem at its head and the potential causes protruding from its spine. I could spend a whole column discussing the fishbone diagram, but if you have never used one before, just search online and you will find plenty of sites that show you how to build and use one.

Once you determine the causes of your process problems, it is time to identify ways to improve your process. Be sure that your potential solutions attack the root causes of your problems and not just the symptoms. For instance, in my bathing situation, I found that one of the root causes of the mess came from the girls’ splashing in the water, something that they found fun. I attacked this problem by introducing bath toys, so that they no longer had to splash to have fun.

Some techniques I have found to address timeliness and cost-efficiency in processes include: “pre-positioning” items used in the process so you do not waste time having to find or retrieve them; performing steps in the process concurrently when possible; and utilizing technology to handle routine tasks.

I hope these two columns gave you a new perspective on processes and will help you improve how you do things – in your business, and in your life!

The writer is dean of the Hull College of Business at Augusta University.

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