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How to Improve Process Flow

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A process consists of all the steps needed to create a product or deliver a service. Everything is a process--locking your front door, making a hard boiled egg, sewing a dress or manufacturing a Volvo. Each process has a starting point, any number of sequential or concurrent action steps, and a definite ending. Production time, cost and quality are all affected by the flow of the process at each step. Improving process flow should be a constant effort to cut costs, improve quality and eliminate errors and rework.

Create a flow chart of the process. Flow charts take each action step in sequence from the beginning to end. Along the flowchart, decision points are marked, with subsequent steps to complete variations in the process. The end of the process will mark the completion of the process. Gather a group of individuals that are involved in the work, are affected by the process, interact with the process or are recipients or end users of the product or service. This group of stakeholders provides a broad perspective of the process.

Identify barriers, variations or roadblocks in the process. Production workers on different shifts may be performing the same work but with slight variations. Examining the flowchart will reveal variations in how tasks are completed. A flowchart of the purchase order process may reveal five approval steps, which may be slowing down the process. Operators on different shifts may be calibrating equipment differently, affecting quality and causing equipment breakdown.

Examine the layout of your plant, office or department. Something as simple employees working on the same process but located in different buildings can slow down communications and transfer of information. If employees are located in different areas of the city, transportation and traffic may be another issue. Relocating employees by process to a central location may improve the flow of information and communications

Review the use of technology in the process. Your accounting department may still be using paper invoices that are mailed to clients. You may be spending a lot of time revising, copying and then attaching documents to emails instead of using file sharing software like Dropbox. The equipment in the plant may be outdated, using too many manual steps that slow down a process. Technology is an investment and involves downtime and training, but it can improve process flow in the long run.

Invite a cross section of employees to discuss any problems or challenges when completing the process. Lack of training, clear work instructions or communications can things down when everything else is running smoothly. The human factor cannot be ignored. Shifts that try to sabotage each other or leave unclear instructions at shift change impact a process as much as equipment or materials. Improving employee relations can make a significant improvement in work flow.