What is a Process?

SIPOC Diagram

A frustrated, newly minted, Lean Six Sigma belt called me the other day and asked: "How do I get the people I work with to understand the concept of a process?" Good question. Sometimes we get so used to the concept that we forget other people don't think in processes. 

What's a Process? 

From a Six Sigma view, we might think of a flow chart, value stream map or SIPOC diagram. 

sipoc diagram 

Every process has a supplier who provides inputs, even if it's just your supervisor asking you to create a report. The process should transform the inputs into the outputs by adding value. Every process should have outputs for a customer, even if it's just your supervisor getting the requested report. I once worked with an IT group that was working 80-hours a week creating architecture designs that no one wanted or had requested. 

Which of the following is a process?

  • Getting dressed
  • Making a meal
  • Hiring an employee
  • Paying bills
  • Making a decision
  • Making a sales call
  • Making a product
  • Installing an appliance
  • Driving a car

Answer: They are all processes. 

Everyone follows some sort of process if they want to to do something. Even innovation is a process. People often think they're not following a process because they developed the process in an ad hoc fashion trying to get something done. 

Unfortunately, when everyone develops their own unique process for accomplishing a task, the variability is enormous. To get the perfection customers (either internal or external ones) want requires a commitment to define a common process and follow it. The process should only change when data about defects or deviation tells you to improve it. 

I worked with one metal manufacturer. Different workers had different ways of setting up the machines to produce a given product. The startup scrap and time was large. When they started capturing the ideal settings for each product and presetting the machines to those starting values, startup scrap dropped. 

So when people act dumb about processes, just remember that they don't think like you do. Instead of trying to get them to grasp the concept of a process, it's a lot easier to lead them by the hand. Ask them: "How do you do that? What do you do first? What do you do second?" As they tell you their process, simply capture it with Post-It® Notes on a sheet of paper and then ask them: "Is this it?" They often have a few refinements. Then tell them: "This is your process for doing XYZ." 

Of course, no one else does it exactly that way, so you may have to facilitate a discussion to arrive at a common process, but that's how you go from ad hoc processes to defined ones.

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537, support@qimacros.com."

Free Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt TrainingTake our FREE Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt training online.