Defining & Scoping Improvement Projects

by Paul C. Donehue

It’s been said that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

But such is not the challenge we face today!

As detailed in an article by colleague Sheila Julien, a tremendous number of analysis and problem-solving tools have been developed over the past several decades, all of which are now available to deploy in the unending quest for providing better service to customers or for producing greater value with less waste.

Therefore, in today’s world, the efficiency and efficacy of continuous improvement depends on selecting the best analysis and problem-solving tool at the right time.

Considering this reality, perhaps the most important tools for success start in the scoping.

Along those lines, one of the most valuable tools to be used at the onset of an initiative to effectively define the process, problem, and project is the SIPOC, which consists of:

  • Suppliers
  • Inputs
  • Process
  • Outputs
  • Customers

Some organizations always start with the SIPOC to get the team on the same page so they can answer a number of key questions, such as:

  • What is the process?
  • What is its purpose (why are we doing this)?
  • Who owns the process (surprisingly sometimes not obvious or /known)?
  • Who are the customers/suppliers?
  • Who is the primary customer?
  • What do they get out of the process or provide for the process?

And then there is a lot of learning about the high level process flow (7-8 steps) and the process measures for each step:

  • What’s the ideal?
  • Is the data available?
  • Are we already measuring it?
  • What is the goal?
  • What is the impact?

Once the team members have a shared high-level understanding of the process using the SIPOC, and have gathered the data that enables them to measure the gap between the current situation and the ideal, they can create a good problem statement, objective, scope, and timetable.

These together are key components of a Project Charter, the ‘North Star’ of a project that helps keep the project moving forward to successful completion.

Another Perspective

Often we have a process through which we want to increase the throughput or output without adding resources. In these situations a Process Flow Chart or Process Evaluation Chart is an excellent tool to start with. A Process Flow Chart or Process Evaluation Chart (the latter is populated with measurement data) can be created by bringing together the participants in the process and mapping it out together.

Some organizations believe that mapping the processes with the frontline associates always results in light bulbs going on and the associates voicing concerns and ideas once their process is on the wall.

There are always surprises, they find ‘black holes’ or dead ends, see the ‘wastes’, waiting and hand-overs get visible and they learn what the other ‘swim-lanes’ (teams or team members) do and how what they do impacts others and vice versa. They always start to create action logs based on the concerns/ideas and they serve as the basis for the improvement project.

Two additional tools we have found helpful at the start of the project are the “Waste Calculator” and the “Project Success Predictor.”

The Waste Calculator helps a team to quantify that gap between today’s reality and what it would be like if everything were right. By quantifying the impact of wasted time, material, capital, and opportunity, this tool helps an organization select the best opportunities on which to work, and give them the correct level of urgency.

The Project Success Predictor is a tool developed by Conway consultants to help teams identify weak spots in the project definition so they can address them early and increase the chances of success. It is a simple checklist that every project leader and sponsor should review before launching a major project.

About the author

Paul C. Donehue is a senior associate at Conway Management Company, a global management consulting firm that helps clients of all types and sizes improve business performance and employee engagement.