By Steve Cuthbert, Director of Operational Excellence
My house has a two-car garage—unfortunately, it actually functions as a one-car garage. The reduced parking space is usually not an issue until the snow falls. When that happens, parking in the garage becomes an ongoing competition between family members who will try almost anything to avoid having to push and scrape snow off the car before being able to drive away.
Why are we usually able to get only one car in the garage? Clutter! No matter what we do, stuff just seems to build up over time, which slowly decreases the available parking space. New things, old things, items that are not put where they are supposed to go—the clutter always builds up.
Inevitably, we spend a weekend every few months cleaning out the garage—we throw or give things away, organize, and put things in the proper place. I’ve noticed that this process is much like weeds in a garden or dishes in a sink. Things just seem to accumulate and act like a magnet for other things. Then it’s all downhill from there.
Our business systems and processes are very similar—they tend to become cluttered over time with non-value added steps, outdated procedures, other duties as assigned, paperwork, rework, and inspection activities. Every so often, we should take the time to “clean out” our systems. Otherwise, we start losing critical capacity with our most precious resource—the time and expertise of employees doing the work.
Eliminating clutter should always be the first step in process improvement. Why? Because adding capacity to our existing resources is the fastest, most efficient way to add value. For example, while it would be great to have a three-car garage, it doesn’t make much sense for me to incur the expense before maximizing my current space.
The following questions will help us identify ways to clean up our systems and maximize our current resources:
- Are there things we can stop doing?
- Are there things we can off-load to other, less critical resources?
- Can we make process steps more efficient?
- Can we eliminate rework?
- Can we move resources from less critical to more critical areas?
- Do our resources have all the needed tools and information to be effective?
- Are our resources doing the right amount of work?
With the fluid and changing nature of our work and systems, these are not one-time questions. We should ask them periodically to protect capacity. These questions will also require us to look horizontally across the organization to find solutions rather than just focusing on a particular function or silo of work.
If we overlook this critical first step in process improvement, we run the risk of adding more “stuff” that, in the end, does not add value. While it may not be intuitive, the improvement process is as much about stopping, reducing, and eliminating as it is about beginning new initiatives.