The First Two Steps in Process Improvement

Most process improvement initiatives fail miserably.  First, they do not improve the processes they were supposed to improve.  Second, they waste managerial and employee time, effort and attention.  Or, third, the process may be improved; but this improvement does not improve our business.

To succeed with any process improvement initiative, we need to start out correctly with the first two steps of elimination and simplification.


Before we begin any improvement initiative, we need to eliminate anything that is not absolutely necessary.  This means evaluating whether the task or activity to be improved is truly needed.  To do this evaluation, we need to look at the ‘why’. 

  • Why are we doing this particular task?  Why is it essential?
  • What is the end result of this task? 
  • Over the last several months what actions have been made or decisions altered as a result of this task?
  • How does this task or process deliver value to the customer? 
  • How does this task or process improve our business?

If the process or task only results in ‘nice to know’ or ‘just in case’ information, then the process or task needs to be eliminated.  European business school professors, Heiche Bruch and Jochen I. Menges, are equally aggressive in their push for elimination:

“Regularly ask yourself, your managers, and the whole company: “Which of our current activities would we start now if they weren’t already under way?” Then eliminate all the others.”

If the result of all these questions is that the task is essential and needed, then we need to go back and ask whether all parts of the task or process are needed. 

Throughout this evaluation process, we need to engage the team that is doing the task and the ‘customer’ (both internal and external) of the task.


Congratulations, we have eliminated the unnecessary tasks and processes and the unnecessary parts of these tasks and processes.  Now, we are on to the next step: simplification.

Simplification is even more difficult than elimination because most of us as managers and leaders (and especially consultants!!) love complexity.  As the author Nassim Taleb writes:

“People who are bred, selected, and compensated to find complicated solutions do not have an incentive to implement simplified ones.”

But, we have to get beyond that and simplify everything that can be simplified:

  1. Look for the simple solution that solves 80% of the problem with 20% of the time and complexity (80 / 20).
  2. Reduce the steps and hand-offs in the process to the absolute minimum
  3. How can the process be done in 1 / 10th or 1 / 100th of the time.  Considering how to get something done extremely quickly, such as in a Nascar pit stop, can lead to radical simplification.
  4. Streamline, shorten and bullet point communication focusing on the 3 – 5 key concepts
    1. Use simple words and simple sentences – seventh grade reading level – to ensure that everyone understands
    1. Avoid synonyms which can cause confusion.  Is the goal the same thing as the objective which is the same thing as the target?  Choose one word, ditch the thesaurus, and ensure that the communication is understood
  5. Summarize reports with the key take-aways (the ‘what?’, ‘so what?’, and ‘now what?’) and put the summary in the body of the E-Mail so that it can be read on the phone.

As the painter, Hans Hofmann, so eloquently put it:

“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”


By first eliminating and then simplifying, we can focus our improvement initiatives on the processes and tasks (and the parts of these processes and tasks) that add the most value to the customer and to our business. 


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
This entry was posted in Business Acumen, Improve / Turnaround, Perform / Execution and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The First Two Steps in Process Improvement

  1. Anonymous says:

    Great article David! Unfortunately most companies have no standards, are not measuring the right things and have no way of knowing if the improvement did anything. I remember back in my precast days we introduced the rebar tie guns which made the workers job easier but I really wonder if the overall process was more efficient or just freed up the worker to slow down.
    Taiichi Ohno
    • All we are doing is looking at the time line, from the moment the customer gives us an order to the point when we collect the cash. And we are reducing the time line by reducing the non-value adding wastes.
    • Where there is no Standard there can be no Kaizen.

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