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Process Improvement Tools: 4 Key Types and Questions to Ask

How do you choose the best tool for your process improvement initiative? Get advice on process improvement tools and important decision factors.

What tools are used for process improvement initiatives?

Your organization relies on processes every day to keep operations running. But as your business evolves, customer demands shift, and new regulations are made, your business processes will likely need to change, too.

Part of the motivation behind business process improvement is that as you work to make your processes better, your organization will become more agile, your products will become more innovative and your customers more satisfied.

The tools you use to make this happen can vary depending on your approach to process improvement, your resources, and your project goals. They help you understand your process, figure out where things are going wrong and what to do about it, and measure the impact of your improvements. Some process improvement methods will have their own set of preferred tools, and some of these methods can also be considered tools themselves.

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4 main categories of process improvement tools.

1. Process mapping tools, like flowcharts, value stream maps, swimlane diagrams, Gantt charts, or SIPOC diagrams, can be used to visualize your process and create a shared understanding of how it works. Tools like these often work alongside stakeholder interviews or process observation methods that help provide additional context about how a process works.

Process mapping example. 

2. Analysis tools identify trends or patterns in your process that help you understand the root cause of problems. These problem-solving tools can range from simple to complex and include conformance checking, root cause analysis methods like the 5 whys, fishbone diagrams, and statistical analysis.

3. Process improvement tools address the problem areas that you’ve uncovered in your mapping and analysis to make your process more efficient, including tools like poka-yoke (a Japanese term for error-proofing), 5s, or process automation technologies.

4. Performance measurement tools like dashboards and scorecards are used to measure the impact of your improvement efforts and monitor process performance over time using key performance indicators (KPIs). They can also help you determine the return on investment for your improvements.  

5 questions to ask when selecting process improvement tools.

Process improvement projects involve a lot of moving parts. And since they are built on the idea of continuous improvement, you’ll still need to monitor process performance to adjust and optimize your processes over time—even after you’ve fixed your original process problems. 

Before you get started with your process improvement plan, consider if you have the right resources in place to help you succeed now and in the future.

These questions can help you determine which tools are the best fit for your process improvement plan: 

1. What are the objectives and goals of the process improvement project?

Answering this question is fundamental. It sets the stage for your entire project and helps you choose the approach (and ultimately the tools) that you’ll be using to implement your improvements. It will also help you create internal alignment and make sure that your project matches up with organizational goals.

2. What is the scope of the project, and what are the key areas that need improvement?

Depending on your answer, you might find that certain tools won’t fit within your project scope or won’t be able to address the type of problem you’re trying to solve. For example, if one of your process goals is to reduce manual work, you’ll want to make sure you have the automation tools in place to actually replace repetitive human tasks.

3. What are the project’s constraints and limitations, such as budget, time, and personnel resources?

While you will ideally want to use the best tool for the best job, sometimes budget or resource limitations can get in the way. You’ll also want to consider the project timeline. You might find that some tools will take too long to implement, or they might not provide you with the right capabilities to accurately identify and address the problem areas.

4. How will project success be measured?

The only way to know if your plan was successful is to measure its effect. Determining the key performance indicators (KPIs) that will be used to measure the success of the project is a foundational piece of process improvement, so you’ll need to make sure you have the right performance measurement tools in place before you begin. For example, if you want to measure how much an improvement shortened your overall process cycle time, you’ll need a solution that can help you track the time saved in each stage of the process.

5. What are the long-term sustainability and maintenance requirements for the tools and technologies?

Who will own and maintain the tool throughout the process improvement project and beyond? Will employees need to be trained? How will the tools you use now support future improvement projects? By answering these questions, you can get a solid understanding of how your chosen tools will be used now and in the long term to ensure that they can meet your evolving needs.

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How process improvement benefits from automation.

Process mapping, analysis, process improvement, and performance measurement tools can all be improved with automation.

For example, process mining technology can automatically visualize your as-is process with all its variants—a feat that would be impossible to do manually. And it can auto generate a target model that you can compare to your current process, making it easy to discover deviations. You can even conduct automated root cause analysis to see potential causes of problem areas. By saving time during the process mapping and analysis phase, you can start implementing improvements, including automated solutions, faster.

With a process automation platform, you can unify work with multiple automation tools to improve your entire process. These include robotic process automation (RPA), which can reduce repetitive tasks to free up employee time, and AI-driven intelligent document processing (IDP), which can add a lot of efficiency to data capture processes. A strong automation strategy will help you reap process improvement benefits sooner.

By taking advantage of automation tools, you can add efficiency to both your process improvement plan and your processes themselves, bringing your organization further along on its continuous improvement journey. 

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