Process improvement is a very important part of any health service. It helps organisations to analyse and enhance their processes. By so doing, they can optimize their process to produce quality outputs. However, process improvements cannot be achieved without process tools. Process improvement tools are useful in all the dimensions of quality.
Process improvement tools are the techniques and methods organisations employ to drive quality improvements. Although there are different tools, they help to achieve the same goal. When these tools are put to use, organisational productivity increases as well as effectiveness and efficiency. On the other hand, process improvement tools help to reduce wastes and eliminate defects in the service processes.
In addition, an effective improvement tool requires a systematic approach to achieve its goal. As such, project teams may deploy more than one tool when implementing improvements.
Furthermore, for any process improvement to be effective, management and staff must be concerned about quality improvements. The impact of process improvement tools can only be felt when a health facility duly applies the changes that have been suggested. Managers must show their commitment by providing all the training and implementation support needed.
There are now countless tools and techniques for improvements. Nevertheless, for the purpose of this article, we will focus on ten process improvement tools. By tool, here, we are referring to the Oxford Dictionary definition – that is, systems, frameworks, etc, “used to help perform a job”, i.e. improve organisational processes.
Process improvement tools
Every health facility is made up of diverse processes. Processes are the flow of activities and information that modify inputs to produce valuable outputs for the client. Therefore, process improvement tools ensure that quality improvements are tailored to enhance the clients’ experience.
Unless you are a trained professional, implementing process improvements can be very hectic. Notwithstanding, every organisation wants to produce quality outputs that meet and exceed client expectations. Hence, the first place to start is knowing how to use process improvement tools to drive quality.
1. Flowchart – great for understanding processes
The flowchart is a process improvement tool used for outlining and understanding service processes. It is a simple step-by-step guide that breaks down the entire process into detailed activities, events and relationships.
In addition, a flowchart is called a process flow diagram. This improvement tool gives a graphical representation of service processes. A flowchart reveals inputs, pathways, circuit actions, decisions and outputs. Flowcharting helps health facilities understand all the activities happening within their processes. As such, management can decide which activities to eliminate or introduce.
More so, a flowchart serves as a detailed tool used for analysis and optimisation of the workflow. A flowchart helps organisations to visualize their processes.
2. Value stream mapping
Value stream mapping is a method of flowcharting. It is also a simple diagram that shows every step involved in the service process. However, this process improvement tool highlights value-adding and non-value adding activities in operational processes. It achieves this by giving a visual illustration of all the steps needed from product creation to delivery.
Furthermore, value stream mapping analyses and improves the steps needed to get products to end-users. It shows how information and activities flow within the health facility. Also, value stream mapping helps health facilities to make the most effective use of their resources. It helps to identify and eliminate non-value adding activities while enhancing value-adding and value-enabling activities.
This tool helps to eliminate defects in the service processes. It highlights ways to improve the quality of products or services. The tool makes it easy for health facilities to evaluate the current state of their processes. In addition, value stream mapping is effective for reducing running costs, enhancing the culture of change, communication and collaborations.
3. DMAIC for process improvement
DMAIC is another process improvement tool that stands for Define, Measure, Improve and Control. This acronym represents the five stages of quality improvement implementation. Professionals use this process improvement framework to improve an existing process that is performing below standard.
At the Define stage of the DMAIC model, the project team defines the problem of the process. They also set the goals and scope of the improvement project. The Measure stage is where the team measures performance. They achieve this by collecting data from the process under review. The team analyses the process and data collected at the Analyse stage of DMAIC. The Improve stage is where actual process improvements are performed. Then, at the Control stage, the project team monitors improvements for non-compliance. More about DMAIC here.
4. PDCA cycle as a tool
The plan-do-check-act (PDCA) cycle serves as another process improvement framework for driving quality. PDCA simply means Plan, Do, Check and Act. This process improvement tool represents the four steps for implementing improvements.
The project team determines what they are planning to change at the Plan step of PDCA. The Do step is where the team performs quality improvements. On the other hand, the team compares the improved process with the old one at the Check stage. This is done to check if there is really any improvement at all. Meanwhile, Act is the stage where everyone involved in the process plays their part in driving quality improvements.
5. the Fishbone diagram
Fishbone diagram is a useful tool in cause and effect analysis. Fishbone diagram is also called the Ishikawa diagram. This diagram helps management to determine the cause of inefficiencies, defects and variations.
In actual fact, this diagram looks like a fish’s skeleton. Usually, the problem under analysis is place at the ‘head’, while the possible causes are the branches drawn from the spine. Immediately all possible causes are outlined, managers can recommend solutions to fix them.
Most problems associated with health service processes are amenable to a solution once the potential causes are clear. A cause and effect (fishbone) diagram helps to create a visual illustration of all possible causes of defects in the service process. Thus, it is a great process improvement tool that helps to prevent problems before they occur.
6. SIPOC in health facilities
This is another excellent improvement tool. The SIPOC diagram shows how value is delivered to clients. SIPOC means Supplier – Inputs – Process – Outputs – Clients. This process improvement tool is used to analyse these five aspects of a process.
First of all, suppliers provide inputs to the process. Inputs could be in the form of information, resources or materials. On the other hand, the process requires inputs to generate outputs. The process is a flow of activities that modify the inputs to produce outputs. Meanwhile, outputs are the end-products delivered to the clients. Outputs are delivered to clients in the form of products, information or services. These outputs must be valuable to clients. The clients are the final users of outputs generated by the process.
Hence, SIPOC shows the relationship between these five elements and how a defect from one element can affect the entire process. SIPOC is used to visually document service processes from beginning to end. Usually, the tool is applied during the Define stage of DMAIC. This tool helps the project team to understand the scope and function of the process under review.
7. Use 5-why to get to the roots
The 5-why analysis is a process improvement tool used to analyse the root cause of defects in a process. With this method, you keep asking ‘why’ questions five times until you arrive at the root cause of the problem.
After the analysis, you have several options for tackling the problem. The next step is to write down possible solutions for each of the problems identified.
8. Use 5S for a safer workspace
Another process improvement tool is the 5S system. 5S represents five ‘S’ steps used to maintain cleanliness, efficiency and safety in the workspace. These steps are sort, straighten, shine, standardize and sustain.
At the Sort step of 5S, the implementation team sorts out tools, machines and items in the workspace. They leave the relevant items in the workspace while irrelevant ones are taken to storage. The project team uses the Straighten step to set the workspace in order. Every tool is kept at a specific location so workers can locate them easily. The team cleans up all the tools, machinery and equipment at the Shine step.
New standards of work and best practices are set in place at the Standardize step. The team uses the Sustain step of the 5S system to maintain improvements.
In addition, the 5S system helps to eliminate wastes in health services. By so doing, it increases the value of products and services for clients. A cluttered workspace can lead to mistakes, waste of time and accidents. These inefficiencies can slow down production and interrupt the workflow.
A safe and organized workplace helps to increase the quality of output. As such, this tool helps workers to get their jobs done faster. Also, employees are satisfied with their work and can manage their time well.
9. Gemba walks
Another great process improvement tool is Gemba walks. Gemba is a Japanese word that means “real place”. Hence, this tool involves managers taking a walk in the actual workplace to observe and identify areas for improvements. After the walk is done, managers reflect on what they have observed and make suggestions for improvements. The idea behind a Gemba walk is to obtain ideas for improvements from the actual people involved in the work process.
Furthermore, the face-to-face period from the walk sends a positive message to employees. It gives them a sense of belonging knowing that management is interested in what they are doing and their ideas. Therefore, Gemba walks help to boost employee satisfaction and morale.
10. Standard work
Standard work (also called standardized work document) is a document that forms the foundation for process improvements. It is another process improvement tool used to drive improvements. It contains the current best practice that guides an already improved process. The tool must be complete, up-to-date and accessible to be effective.
Standard work begins with creating an awareness of the most efficient methods to perform a task. Once everyone in the health facility is aware of standard practices, they are required to start putting them into practice. However, standard work is not carved in stone. An employee can suggest further improvements to already existing standard work if they discover new best practices.
The list of process improvement tools is unending. Therefore, it is important that organisations pick the tool suitable for their processes.
Every health facility seeks to improve its processes to achieve client satisfaction. Client satisfaction guarantees client loyalty. In turn, client loyalty increases referrals and recommendations.
Thus, process improvement tools are the methods and techniques applied when implementing improvements. Continuous process improvements help to eradicate wastes and defects in service processes. in addition, process improvement boosts profitability and efficiency.
However, there are countless other process improvement tools that organisations can employ for quality implementation. In this article, we have listed ten tools for process improvements and how they can be employed. Some of them are value stream mapping, fishbone diagram, SIPOC diagram, 5S system, flowcharts and PDCA amongst others. Although knowing how to use these tools is important, selecting the right tool for your process is also as important.
Process improvement tools, in themselves, are not enough to drive quality. For any process improvement to be effective, management and employees must show their commitment. Management should be willing to provide training and all the necessary support necessary for implementing improvements. On the other hand, employees must be willing to play their part in process improvements.
For more about quality improvement methods, feel free to explore the following articles: