A Guide to Simplifying and Automating Processes-EN

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Hans Eckman

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Conclusion:  To be good at automating, you need to remove all the noise (waste and steps that don’t need a decision) between you and each action.

A while ago, my colleague and mentor Dusty Rhodes asked me the following question, “How would you teach process improvement, automation and simplification to someone new to the concept?”

The following tips are a very high level approach based on my response and discussion with Dusty.

  • Use sticky notes or index cards. (nerds use Visio or other flow charting software)
  • Define your outcome: If I’m successful, what would it look like?   (Read “Switch: How to change things when change is hard” for help on organizational changes.)
    • Why do you need it?
    • What are you trying to accomplish?
    • Can I buy the end product from someone else cheaper or easier?
    • Why bother in the first place?
  • The best way to reduce waste is to get rid of the whole process and outcome.
  • Script the critical steps.
    • What key things must happen to reach my outcome?
    • Start backwards from our outcome.
    • Example: Buy new TV. < Decide on model. < Find best price.  < Limit models <
    • If you have two possible ways to get to the step, write both on a separate card.
    • Number each card.  Don’t worry, these are for tracking, not sequencing.
  • Elaborate each step into its Core 4:
    • Type of step
      • Input: Define source, constraints, dependencies.  Draw a square in the upper left corner.
      • Action: List who does what and how.  Draw a rectangle in the upper left corner.
        (Why?  The rectangle is the flow chart symbol for a process or step.)
      • Choice: List each decision or option and an arrow pointing to the number of the next steps when that option is used.  Draw a diamond in the upper left corner.
        (Why?  The triangle is the flow chart symbol for a decision or branch.)
      • End/Connector: If the step or decision causes the process to end or jump to a different process, list the outcome or new process name, and draw a triangle in the upper left corner.
        (Why?  The triangle is the flow chart symbol for a connector to another set of steps.  You can also use an oval which is the symbol for a process end.)
        For example, the yard maintenance process might have an input “rain” which jumps to a new process “indoor activity, defer yard work till rain is gone”.
    • The doer: For each step, determine who is doing the work before it can move to the next box.  Label each card in the upper right corner.
      • Person: A person is performing the step.
      • System:  A tool or external resource is performing the step.  You wait to get to the next step.
      • Decision: A choice must be made to get to the next step.
      • Waste: This step can be eliminated or modified to remove actions, decisions or changes.
  • Once you’ve defined the current process (As Is) and reviewed for accuracy, it’s time to work on the improved process flow.  (To Be)

Now, search and destroy the waste!

  • Triage each step:
    • 1. Remove everything you can that isn’t critical or has quantifiable value. Label as Waste and remove/replace.
    • 2. If the step doesn’t require a decision, look for your lowest cost option to complete the step or set of steps (automate or outsource).
    • 3. For decisions, verify you have the right information to make a fast and accurate decision.  (There cannot be a “wait” right before the decision.  You need it at the time the decisions step occurs.)
  • Work backwards again.  Start with the outcome, and re-examine each step leading to it.
  • Look at everything you labelled waste. and replace or overlay with a step or steps that remove actions that aren’t in the critical path to your outcome.
  • Everything that is labelled Person:
    • Can it be removed or replaced?  This is 90% of your effort!  Moving information or performing calculations DO NOT need to be done by a person.  If the person touching it is not modifying it while adding value (thought), it does not need to be a manual step. (waste)
    • Can a system do it? (automate)
    • Can someone else do it for you cheaper and faster? (outsource)
    • If you hear “that’s the way we do it here”, you’ve found legacy constraints which are causing waste.
    • Overlay your old process (As Is) with your new steps (To Be).
  • Everything that is labelled System:
    • Can it be removed or replaced? (waste)
    • Can someone else do it for you cheaper and faster? (outsource)
    • If you hear “that’s the way we do it here”, you’ve found legacy constraints which are causing waste. (waste)
    • What inputs and outputs can be removed or simplified, but still connect the before and after steps. (waste)
    • Overlay your old process (As Is) with your new steps (To Be).
  • Everything labelled Decisions:
    • Is the decision really just manipulating (rearranging or reformatting, but not making a material change) or calculating?  Convert to a system step. (automate or waste)
    • Can any options be removed or consolidated?  (waste)
      Example: For a client, I was able to reduce over 250 custom options into 4 options, each with 5 parameters with no material loss to the outcome.
    • Validate your inputs.  Do you have exactly what you need, when you need it, to make the right decision and proceed to the next step?
    • Can you jump?  Look for ways to change the decision step to take you farther ahead towards your goal.
  • Hopscotch: Now look at the steps in by skipping one, two, three or more steps in between.
    • Can you jump from one part of the flow to a later step or the end by changing the step, inputs or decisions?
    • Use new card to draw this out as an alternate path around the waste steps.  Note, you will probably need to grab pieces for the waste steps to make the jump.  Only use the steps and inputs that are core to your end state.
  • Rinse and repeat
    • Repeat this process until you are happy, bored, or run out of time.
    • Run backwards and forwards.  Our minds always like to go forwards, which is why backwards tricks us into looking at things out of context and on their own merit.
    • When you are done, rewrite just the end state and run through again just to make sure.
  • Don’t forget, the first thing you should ask yourself every time you make a change is “Can’t I just get rid of it?!”

Thank you,


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Picture of Hans Eckman

Hans Eckman

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