Is Process Optimisation Killing Your Business? – Part 1
By: Nicholas Hill
26th May 2020
5 minute read
Do you travel light, or do you go prepared for any eventuality? I’ve always loved travelling, particularly when I can get off the beaten track. Although the concept of travelling light really appeals to me, perhaps because of my engineering training I like to be very organised and prepared. Over many years I’ve built up a checklist of things to take, categorised by the type of trip. Anytime I’ve found I needed something that I hadn’t taken, I would add it to the checklist when I got back. Over time the list grew and grew, and while I’m genuinely prepared for anything, I’m saddled with a large and heavy bag to carry all that gear. That makes it harder to move from place to place and so discourages ad hoc changes to plan. I might feel that a single night detour to some interesting location would be fun to do but am put off at the thought of all that packing and unpacking. I’m unable to do some of the things that I liked to travel for in the first place.
As a medium-sized innovation and technology consultancy, one of the things that our customers particularly value is our ability to work at pace. We can pick up an assignment, put a team onto it, brainstorm ideas, develop those ideas, do some modelling, get prototypes or technology demonstrators made for evaluation typically much faster than our customer could. And we can keep up that pace through the detail design and introduction to manufacture phases. That might be important because a window of opportunity is limited, or because a hard deadline is looming.
In the latter stages of the design cycle – detail design, production engineering and manufacture – another set of drivers join the need for pace. These typically fall under the ‘quality’ banner and include processes to manage rigour, verification, traceability, repeatability, integrity, and so on. As we have grown we have embedded established systems and processes such as ISO9001 and ISO13485 into the company to support the needs of these drivers. One of the attributes of these systems is a constant drive for process improvement and optimisation. On the whole, this is good, but if left unchecked it leads to a steady accretion of further process. Furthermore, some of our clients, particularly those in the defence and aerospace sectors, require a further range of stringent process so that we can satisfy the requirements of their own internal systems.
A seemingly unavoidable side effect of this drip, drip of additional process and control is a pace-limiting friction on everything that we do. The 400m sprint that we were so good at has turned into the 400m hurdles. And here’s the irony: we are in danger of losing one of the very things that our customers liked us for in the first place – our ability to work faster and more flexibly than they can. Are we producing the optimal engine to deliver a service that is not actually fit for purpose?
What follows are some hopefully useful observations that have come out of our experiences in this area in recent years.
Let’s examine the pressures on an engineering technology business that might restrict its ability to work at pace in a bit more detail.
One set of pressures derive from developing products that are critical in some way, particularly those that have a health and safety impact. Most aerospace products and many transport products must be able to demonstrate very high levels of reliability and availability and operate over a wide range of adverse environmental conditions. Many healthcare products must show high levels of repeatability and integrity. Some of these requirements place demands on the manufacturing and production process, whereas others place demands on the design process. For example, it may be necessary to demonstrate that the design can tolerate every combination of component tolerance variability and still perform as required. Any time the design changes this analysis must be done again, so a process will be needed to ensure that it has. A typical development project for a product of this type will be littered with checklists, design reviews, process gates and carefully crafted documentation.
A completely different set of process accrues from business improvement practices. In simple terms, this is about a desire to identify and capture the most efficient or effective way of working and then follow this approach on every project. This encompasses a wide range of drivers, from avoiding underselling to avoiding project over-runs, from keeping to timescales and minimising rework to improving profits. Project managers and team members are all individuals, so if left to their own devices may approach each project in a different way. Embedding process and rules can provide helpful guidance that ensures all projects follow an optimal path. When something doesn’t go according to plan, the situation is reviewed and process changes are made that will attempt to prevent a recurrence. Although the recent rework of ISO9001 has changed its focus towards risk management, for most of its life it has been all about encoding process like this into a business.
The third set of drivers comes from business growth. As anyone who has worked at a start-up or small SME will know, job roles can be very vaguely defined. A small team can effectively share out the work that needs to be done in an ad hoc fashion without important stuff dropping through the cracks. As an organisation grows, communication gets harder and friction increases. There is a real danger that two individuals, or none, take on a particular task. Neither of these is a welcome outcome, so staff need to know where their responsibilities start and end in a much more precisely defined way. To address this issue, organisations will split into teams and groups with bounded responsibilities and won’t take on tasks that don’t fall within their scope. Job descriptions become specific. Training will become more formalised and staff may need ‘certificates of competence’ so that managers can be sure they have the necessary training to take on the assigned task.
In Part 2 of this blog I’ll be describing some of the less desirable side effects that this increase in the process can have, how it can have a negative impact on your business, and most importantly, what to do to prevent it.