Lean Process ImprovementThere comes a moment in the life of a growing business where the existence of ‘processes’ can no longer be denied.

(even though you’d rather deny them)

Because you, your team AND your customers keep running in to them everyday.

And not necessarily in a good way…

No, it’s very likely because the evidence of your badly thought out processes keeps piling up.

In the shape of customer complaints, time spent on fighting wildfires and the increase in frustration with daily operations.

And even if you are able to get all these issues resolved; there’s always the risk of bad publicity and the accompanying decrease in new leads, customers and income…

That means you’re literally losing 1000’s of Dollars every year!

So why not make an effort in preventing these issues from happening in the first place?

Enter Lean Process Improvement!


What Is Lean Process Improvement?

Continuous ImprovementLet’s explain a few terms first before diving into the HOW of things.

I use Continuous Improvement as an umbrella term under which Lean Process Improvement is 1 element out of 3 (called Continuous Process Improvement in the picture on the right).

Continuous Improvement is something every business should strive for, no matter how small or big you are; you’ll always need your business to ‘flow’ and be efficient.

That’s why a whole structure for continuous improvement should be in place. One in which performance is managed properly, responsibilities are clear and where processes and people are never done developing. All this based on customer desires and requirements, quality and efficiency.

Lean then offers handy tools for making continuous improvement of your business and your processes happen.

Continuous Improvement CycleJust to be clear: Lean is a method that encompasses many many tools and techniques, and we’re just picking 1 of those techniques here!

And the one tool we’re using for Lean Process Improvement is the 6 step cycle that you can see in this picture.


Before You Get Started

There are usually 2 ways to get started on Lean Process Improvement:

1. You come across an issue in operations, or

2. You deliberately take the time to take a closer look at one of your processes

No matter where it came from: it’s an improvement project and should be treated as such.

Now, that does not necessarily mean that you’ll need to overcomplicate things with elaborate project teams and structures but it should be clear that it is something to be done outside of the normal operational environment. And it also really helps to have 1 person responsible for the progress and result of the improvement project.

So before you start you’ll have:

  • A clear problem or process to improve
  • Someone in charge of improving + colleagues who know this particular process/problem pretty well and are able to help
  • Some time to work on this (how much really depends on the size and type of the process)
  • A place to inform the rest of the team about the progress of your project (e.g. a KPI or Planning meeting)


How Does It Work?

Let’s take a look at each of the 6 phases of a Lean process improvement project separately:


1. The Define Phase

The Define phase is all about the ‘think before you start running’. This is where you figure out what it is that you’re exploring, what the actual process AND problem is and of course what your goal is. You do this by using a so-called project-charter as a guideline. This is simply 1 page in which all the key elements of your improvement project are mentioned.

Continuous Improvement: project charter

The most important elements of the charter are:

  • The problem statement, which consists of 1 or 2 sentences and clearly describes the problem and it’s consequences.
  • The goal statement, a sentence or 2 in which you describe what result you will have reached by the end of the project.
  • Scope: this is where you define what is, and probably more important, what is not part of your project
  • Business case: a business case is a calculation of the benefits that will come from doing this improvement, usually against the resources that need to go in the project.
  • Stakeholders are those people who are somehow involved in the process that you’re improving or in the result of that improvement.
  • Risks: Preparing for that what might go wrong is what risk management is all about. You’ll need to take some time and think what might hinder the success of your project. This might be other projects working in the same area, budget restraints, vital stakeholders being against the change or simply not having any time to do the project.
  • The milestone planning in your project charter is a simple overview of when your main phases will be done. This will give you and your colleagues a structure to work with.

There are 4 questions that sum up the Define phase:

  • What is the problem (in 1 sentence)?
  • What are the goals (SMART)?
  • What is the context
  • Who are involved?
  • What are barriers for success?

By the end of the Define Phase you know whether or not you want to invest the time (and therefore money) in further pursuing this project.

Just to be clear, when you’re dealing with a small project or process this doesn’t have to cost you more than 30 minutes! If you’re part of a bigger team and the processes encompasses several teams or departments, it might take you longer of course.


2. The Measure Phase

The goal of this phase is to be able to look back at your problem statement and be able to quantify it; so that you know what the problem costs you and where these costs are made in the process.

There are a few steps in this phase:

  • Draw up the high-level process using the input you have gathered from previous exercises or talking to people.
  • Invite the main people who work within the process to a workshop. Be careful with inviting managers though; often people feel hindered in saying what they actually want to say with their manager there!
  • Validate the process with the group. Together with your group, go through each step in the process and add to it, subtract from it or switch it up. By the end of this exercise you will have a process on which everybody agrees!
  • Identify problems or ‘red flags’. Where in the process do we see what kind of problems occurring? Let people take the time to vent all the problems but make sure that in the end everybody understands and agrees on them.
  • Quantify your red flags. How often do they happen? How long does this take? How much money does it cost? The questions often vary per type of problem but get a good feel of the actual pain and make it measurable so your improvement becomes really clear as well!

The questions that need to be answered in this phase are:

  • What does the process look like?
  • Do all the process steps add value to the customer?
  • What are the problems in the process?
  • What are these problems costing us?

By the end of this phase you’ll know EXACTLY what the process looks like and what it’s costing you.

Oddly enough, just getting people in a room together and talking about the process from a non-operational perspective is one of the biggest benefits of doing this project.


3. The Analyse Phase

This phase needs you to find the root causes for the problems you’ve found in the Measure phase. I use 2 tools for this:

  • 5 Why Method
    Really, you just pretend that you’re 5 years old and have no clue of what’s going on or how things came about that way. Per problem you just keep asking why until the root cause is there! Again make sure you get some real answers and not get stuck at answers like ‘because we’ve always done it that way’ or something.

5 Why example

This example shows how asking 4 times ‘why’ leads you to a whole new insights and perspectives.

  • Root Cause Diagram
    My favourite tool and best explained with an example:Root Cause Diagram example

Obviously not all root causes are found in exactly 5 questions, some take 3, others 8 before you get to the point.

To conclude this phase, the main questions that will have to be answered:

  • What is causing the problem(s)?
  • What is the root cause to the problem(s)?
  • What root causes do we now want to focus on considering size and impact?


Finding the root cause(s) is vital for the success of your process improvement project and really the main reason to use this method all together! Not having the root causes might mean that you’ll spend lots of time and money on implementing the wrong solutions.


4. The Generate Phase

Finally you can start thinking about solutions! Something, you have officially not been able to do for the past 3 phases.  

I like to start with asking the group what solutions are possible for this particular root cause if everything was possible; if there were no limitations in money or time. Then I ask them what solutions there might be when there is a tight budget, which there very likely is. This will probably get you some difficult faces and raised eyebrows but make sure to stick with it! Creativity and innovation usually come from strenuous circumstances!

Very likely, the answers coming up now will be much simpler then in the exercise before.

Solution types are superbroad! It could simply be skipping particular process steps or replacing them by easier steps. Automation is always a big one but really, it’s up to you and the group of people you’re with to come up with the solutions fit for your problem.

So you’ve got a big set of possible solutions; now its time to filter them down to reality. What I like to use is a simple matrix where we put the impact of a particular solution and place it against the ease of effort for it.

Impact Effort Matrix

High impact is every solution that will generate a big result or change towards you goal statement. A high ease of effort means that it is easy to do given your time and resources. This includes the time required to implement it, the costs involved but for ecample also the knowledge that is required.

The main questions for this phase are:

  • What are possible solutions if you have €1000.000 to spend?
  • What are possible solutions if you only have €10 to spend?
  • Prioritize the solution by weighing impact by cost (time, money etc.)


Just like you need to find the right problems to improve, you’ll also need to find the right solutions and that’s what the Analyse Phase is all about.


5. The Implement Phase

You take your solutions and you translate them into actions which you then make happen together with the team!

There are a pitfalls you want to stay clear from though:

  • The actions are vague.
  • There is no action owner defined.
  • The action owner does not know or understand the action.
  • The date is not set, set too ambitious or way too far back.
  • Actions are not managed.

Remember though when things get difficult, people are not against working or against changing; 90% of the time it is the circumstances that create this tensions and it is these that you need to manage.

The most important questions for this phase:

  • Who is responsible for the final result?
  • Who performs what actions when?
  • Do these people know that and do they have the time and skills?
  • What else is required to make this change successful?


Though this phase sounds simple, it is actually the hardest thing! People don’t mind thinking of new solutions when they’re in a workshop kind of environment but when they’re back behind their laptops and sucked in to the day-today of things there’s often not that much time left to actually make the actions happen.

It’s therefore important that the ‘projectleader’ stays responsible for the actions and is able to regularly check with the people in the team about progress.

6. The Control Phase

This is where you check whether you goal statement has indeed come true and the problem statement no longer exists.

There are at least 3 things that need to be done or in place to make sure something sticks and they come in all sorts of different shapes and forms:

  1. Communication.
    You’ll need to figure out what the best way of communicating is and you need to make it happen properly taking into account all your defined stakeholders.
  2. Standard operating procedures.
    This is all about making the change part of your daily business. One of the ways to do so is by creating standard operating procedures or work instructions. These are detailed descriptions of processes and what needs to be done by whom in what step.
  3. Standard metrics. 
    With these I mean that set of metrics (like KPI’s) that you track on a, preferably, regular basis to assure you’re still on the right track or not. After doing your project you might want to take a look at the existing reports and the metrics within them and perhaps adjust the target or add a metric to ensure that what you’ve just improved does not get lost.

The most important questions for this phase:

  • What are the measurable results?
  • Are the changes now part of the standard process? In other words, is it impossible to slip into old habits?
  • What needs to happen in the future?


It’s so easy for people to go back to the way they’ve always been doing something and ‘forget’ about the improvement you made. You’ll therefore need to pay really close attention to making sure the solutions stick!


Beyond Lean Process Improvement

There you have it, the 6 steps of the continuous improvement cycle!

Will it make processes more fun?

Probably not.

But it will make sure you’re more aware:

  • of the inner workings of your business
  • how much time and money you’re wasting
  • that you’ll improve something for the long run AND
  • all this in cooperation with the people involved.

And THAT’s pretty darn useful!


If you’d like to learn how this Lean Process Improvement works in more detail check out my online course on Udemy; it’s more than 1,5 hours of explanations, templates, real examples and over 750 fellow students!

Readers of the blog get a big discount and all you have to do is click on this button:

Lean Process Improvement


I’d love to hear from you

Are you in the field of Lean or Continuous Improvement? What methods and tools do you like to use? Anything to add or ask on this topic? Share in the comments below!