Scoping Improvement Projects: An Agnostic Model

A Six Minute Primer

Recent conversations about different improvement philosophies – Lean, Six Sigma, Hoshin Kanri, etc. – have exposed, once again, an obstaclprocessese to true, sustainable improvement. Namely, loyal adherence to each individual method. These philosophies are merely tools – and, like a hammer or bandsaw, are essentially worthless without a proper blueprint.

These different schools of thought frequently compete with each other – which gets in the way of actually fixing things. Following is a three-phase  “agnostic” process improvement model – that is, it doesn’t matter whether the project is run by Lean senseis, or Six Sigma Black Belts; this is a structure to scope, plan, and execute any improvement.

In this post, I will look at building the foundation for any BPI effort – Understanding the Current State. Future posts will detail what to do with this information.It may seem obvious, but without knowing how things are performing (and why), it’s awfully difficult to fix them.

Identify, Prioritize Key Processes

Improvement projects are often chartered because of a gut feeling, a dissatisfaction with what’s happening. Or results are off. Or a managerial drive-by (“I just came out of Executive Meeting; you know what we should work on?”)

Understand that these are symptoms, not necessarily areas for improvement. What are the processes driving these results? Who says the process is broken (e.g., customers, suppliers)?

If there are multiple areas needing work, prioritize where to start: What has the biggest impact on current results? On our ability to hit our strategic targets? Which is spiraling out of control? What processe(s) are entirely missing?

Some advocate pursuing “quick wins” first – chasing what gives the biggest bang with the least effort. Since this is the earliest part of the improvement project, we likely don’t understand the effort involved; focusing on impact makes better business sense. This doesn’t mean we favor a dramatic “re-engineering”; an area of great impact could be a process which is working well – or well designed – but could be tweaked or managed better.

Build a Project Plan

The reason for treating this like a “real” project is simple: This is a “real” project. It has real project needs: sponsorship, resource allocation, visibility, active management. At this stage, a detailed plan is difficult – without knowing the extent of breakage, predicting the effort to fix it is tough. The improvement manager, though, can structure a plan with three major deliverables (hint: they correspond with the three phases of the model) including a fairly-accurate straw man for Phase 2. Phase 3 – “Execute” – will be vague, as the decisions that impact its scope aren’t even known. That said, it is critical to lay out the plan now, to make visible to all stakeholders what will be required (in terms of effort and resources) to achieve the organization’s goals.

Even at this early stage, a detailed plan – including roles and expectations – for Current State documentation, analysis, and scoping of Future State facilitation should be created and approved.

Document the Current State

This is where Black Belts can let their methodology flags fly. Six Sigma, Lean, whatever – this is the stage where it’s important to know what tools are being used, when.

Focus on first-person data gathering – stakeholder interviews (including customers and suppliers), Value Stream maps, process maps (“swim lanes”), reviews of existing documentation and tools. Essentially a series of snapshots, these efforts provide a deep, cultural understanding of how work “gets done”.

Understanding the Current State requires an honest assessment; people tend to be less-than-honest if there is the potential for retribution. Promise (and deliver) anonymity.

Schedule time – and set expectations – to verify discoveries (e.g., reviewing maps and interview notes with the sources).

It is vital to document the Current State as it is actually performing, not how it “should” be, or what the standards/rules say.

Analyze the Current State

Here is the opportunity for a deep data dive. Quantative information to gather includes: auditing quality and its costs; benchmarking (against other sites, the competition); time distributions; cycle-time analysis; identification of Seven Wastes; compliance audits (to internal standards, legal requirements, etc.). It can be interesting to conduct differential diagnoses between shifts, departments, products, even days of the week.

Overlaying this information with the first-person observations provides a rich, layered portrait of performance – between what is actually happening and what is expected, but also between what is actually happening and what is possible. Look for nonvalue added activities (now is not the time to figure out how to eliminate them  – that comes during Future State Facilitation – but to understand their impact).

Common disconnects/areas of waste include: quality checks; sequential process flows (where steps could be done in parallel); manual work that could be easily automated; lack of (or inappropriate) metrics. Anything that hints of bureaucracy (approvals, excessive documentation, over-involvement) should be targeted.

“Analysis” includes understanding the cause of these disconnects – is the process poorly designed? Or just poorly executed? Or poorly managed? Calculate the impact of these gaps – in terms of cost, wasted hours, missed market opportunities– and prioritize where the solutions should focus.

The last part of “Analysis” is figuring out what to do about it. Based on strategic and improvement project objectives, and the highest-priority disconnects, brainstorm what possible solutions could look like. These can be high-level and hare-brained; the idea is to generate a directional vision.

These first-pass solutions likely will need to be presented and approved. To gain buy-in and preserve political momentum, focus on the highest-priority objectives, and include what areas are working well. Build a “burning platform”, but don’t portray current activities as a dumpster fire. Most importantly, maintain the anonymity of all who provided information.


Scoping an improvement initiative takes effort, but that work is not dependent on any one specific set of tools. There is a time and a place for individual methodologies, and knowing when and where is key, but there is no need to get wrapped up in philosophical arguments. This model helps structure the project and understand where to improve, while allowing any and all methods to contribute.

As President Bartlett might say, “What’s next?”

Banner Photo by Ashley Batz

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