Just saying the words “kaizen” or “business process improvement” conjures up the vision of making rapid process improvements that slash cycle times, dramatically reduce cost, improve the customer experience and more. It’s been so exciting and gratifying to see the astonishing process improvements that with time, effort, and imagination people can achieve. I think we would be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t been touched by an improved process. I’m not suggesting there isn’t still much to be done; only that so much has been done. These process improvement efforts always, or at least should always, start with understanding the current state, but how do improve something that might not on the surface even exist? How do you improve a process that isn’t defined never mind that it’s not documented? Even worse, what happens if there is not even an understanding of how the work is getting done–it just gets done. In these circumstances does that mean there isn’t a current state? Absolutely not. There is always a current state. But how can you process map what doesn’t exist.

Another challenge to process improvement is when there are two or more processes focused on achieving the same outcome. Essentially there are several current states. I guess you just combine the best elements of each, right? Wrong! Have you ever seen how vehemently someone clings to what they do because they think it’s the best? I actually had to physically act as referee between two doctors who we’re coming to blows over who did what the best.

If you accept there is always a current state even if there is no “real” process or a singular process, then how can you improve? It’s really not as difficult as you might think. There is a way. We call it the “Ideal State Kaizen”.

Some years ago a large public electric utility I was working with acquired another utility and needed to combine some operations. We were challenged to merge the distinct and different business/administrative processes of two organizations into a common and improved set of processes for the “new” company. We were using the traditional kaizen approach and learned very quickly there were flaws. When we put our first team of people together representing each company’s HR group it became instantly obvious that emotions trumped any rational thinking. Each employee was advocating their side and we were well on our way to an adversarial event. It was this event that spawned the design of the Ideal State Kaizen.

The principles and approach of the event didn’t change, only the tools where changed. Step #1 started with understanding the current state, as always, only this time we simply asked them to brainstorm, using our index card exercise (a blog for another day) what issues and concerns they had with their current processes (where there is no process you simply ask what issue or concerns do they have with their work). We then ranked them according to importance which is easily done without prejudice using the card exercise. Step #2 was to provide them a set of probing questions to provoke ideas regarding what opportunities, portions, or significant improvements they think (no judgment) would help overcome the issues. Not looking for solutions, just looking for direction. Step #3, a very critical step that can’t be skipped, was to ask them what Critical Success Factors (CRF) must exist in the ideal process. This again was a card exercise where we prioritized the CSF’s. At this point we had moved the focus away from their processes to a focus on an ideal process. They went from adversarial to collaborative and they didn’t even realize it. Step #4 was to actually write a description of the ideal state process based on the efforts from all the prior steps. This needed to be as detailed as possible that focused on the process steps and not on any solutions. They were provided some limiting criteria, although minimal, but otherwise they had a free hand in defining the ideal process. Step #5 was another card exercise but this time it was to identify the barriers that exist in the current processes or the organization that would prevent the ideal state. Step #6 was problem solving each barrier and coming up with solutions. Step #7 was to readdress the ideal state based on the solutions they identified. Lastly, put an action plan together to execute the solutions. That’s the model and tools we used. Use whatever tools you wish, but if you stick to the model and intent of each step, you will be able to design a process where one doesn’t exist or combine like processes into a common process. This worked so successfully that these efforts continued into finance, purchasing and customer service.