How many times are we asked to make improvements to administrative processes without any real guidance on what to do or where to start? Most managers will hire professional consultants for business improvement projects but will ask their assistants to make changes to the fundamental administrative structures without instruction or training. Even if we do manage to make great changes to useless admin procedures how do we ensure that our colleagues actually do what we ask them?
This has happened to me so many times throughout my career as an Executive Assistant! However I was lucky enough to work with some consultants who were trained in Lean and Six Sigma methodologies used for business improvement projects. I was able to learn some of the tools they used which have been really invaluable.
One such tool is called DMAIC which stands for:
I’ve found this tool so useful when trying to solve problems with admin processes and used it really successfully when asked to reduce the amount of money my company was spending on hotel accommodation. The DMAIC process makes you work through specific activities in a defined structure so that any changes you make to a process will be successful. Sounds good right? Well let’s have a look at each stage in a bit more detail…
The purpose of the first stage of the DMAIC process is to define what the project actually is. This includes:
- a short description about the project
- why the improvement needs to be made / some background on the problem
- what is included in the scope of the project and what is not
- the project goals
- the benefits of improving the process
- who is involved in the project and who are the key stakeholders
Within the define phase assistants should also look at setting up a plan for delivery and agree with their managers on how success will be measured. During my hotel accommodation project I used the define phase to focus solely on hotel accommodation and not travel costs or any other types of costs related to my department. I also wrote a project charter which helped me stay focussed during the project.
This part of the process is all about data gathering to ensure that the improvements are successful and not just a quick fix solution. To change any admin process we need to understand why the current process is not working before we can improve it. The measurement phase includes:
- observing what already happens
- gathering any data to help form an opinion on the process
- speaking to others and gaining their opinion
- mapping the process in more depth
- understanding what really needs to be improved and what will make a real difference
When I was asked to look at how we can reduce the cost of hotel accommodation in my department I used the measure stage of the project to interview everyone whether or not they booked accommodation and asked a series of questions regarding the process. This gave me some really good data on why the hotels were costing so much and the methods people were using to book the them.
The purpose of the analyse phase is to make sense of all of the information and data collected in the previous stage of the process (measure) and to confirm the source of the problem. Here are some questions you should be asking yourself during this phase of the project:
- what are the root causes of the problem?
- where should we focus our efforts on making the improvements?
- have all the problems been uncovered?
During the analyse phase of my project I also prioritised the problems I had uncovered so that I could make improvements quickly during the next stage of the project.
This is the fun part of the project and where you actually start to make the changes necessary to improve the process. At this point improvements can be made, tested and implemented. During this stage of my hotel project I held a number of brainstorming sessions to identify a range of possible solutions and review existing processes that might help improve the hotel booking system – for example we were using an external provider for our flights but not our hotels. The improvement phase is great because it ensures that:
- the team does not get stuck with the same old solutions
- there are new solutions that have been throughly researched and relate to real problems
- piloting of the solutions can take place before a final process is implemented.
To reduce the costs of our hotel expenditure I asked everyone to book accommodation through one supplier. The supplier I chose gave us a preferred rate based on the number of rooms we used each week. The accommodation was near to the office, comfortable, clean and secure which were additional requirements I had uncovered during the measure phase. In the end I reduced hotel costs by 40%.
The final phase of the DMAIC process is there to make sure that any improvements will last. So unfortunately this means that the new process should be documented and communications should be to those affected by the changes you have made. In my example during this stage I produced a small card that my colleagues could keep on their desk to remind them of the new procedure for booking hotel accommodation. The control phase will also help you to make sure:
- there is no backsliding into old habits
- you can react to any future problems
- you can share the learning with other departments in your company
Although the DMAIC approach to business improvement is a long process it is brilliant at ensuring the changes you make to the administration in the company are well thought through and last. Each phase can be worked through fairly quickly and can be used from small requests through to real departmental change.