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Process Capability In the Office May 9, 2011

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Quality.
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I’ve been working for the past several years in various quality functions, and lately I’m starting to see different unrelated management issues as problems that can be analyzed (and possibly solved) using six sigma tools. I guess that’s an occupational hazard and perhaps a limitation of the human mind — a tendency to attempt the same solution to problems in different contexts — but I think there some legitimate opportunities for this kind of approach. Please bear with me for the next several posts while I explore this territory.

In the quality world we spend a lot of time trying to improve the capability of physical processes to deliver results. All processes have some inherent variability, and important to know whether or not a process can consistently perform within a range of allowed results. This is typically measured as a process capability index which compares the difference between the upper and lower spec limits (the range of acceptable performance) to an estimate of the natural variation of the process. When a process is not capable, the typical action is to find ways to center the process within the range of allowed performance, and/or find ways to reduce the natural variation of the process.

In the world of people management we are also looking for ways to improve the capability of our subordinates to deliver results. For a factory worker on an assembly line we try to minimize variation by training the person to perform the steps the same way every time, and repeating that training regularly to prevent a process drift due to familiarity and short cuts. We do the same thing with office workers when we write process documents suitable for ISO audits: attempting to achieve process capability through enforced consistency.

There is another way to achieve process capability, both in the world of physical processes and people management, and that is to change the process so that it is more tolerant of natural variability, particularly the variability due to differences in performance from one person to another. This requires accepting the idea that people are different and bring a different set of skills and talents to their job, and designing the work process so that it enables a variety of people to be equally successful.

On the assembly line we might reduce variability by providing jigs and fixtures to minimize the possibility of misalignment of parts, or designing parts that cannot be assembled in the wrong orientation, or simplifying the overall product design by reducing the number of parts that must be assembled, thereby reducing the number of manual steps required. Of course the ultimate assembly line might be fully-automated, removing the contribution of human variability altogether.

In the modern office there are still situations where different people are expected to perform the same tasks repeatedly, assembly-line style, and this leads to similar challenges to design processes that minimize natural human variability. However in most knowledge-based businesses this is much less common. When everyone has a different job description, what does it mean to increase process capability, and how is that achieved?

Again, I think it comes down to matching the skills and talents of the individual to the skills and talents required in their assigned job. You can reduce variability through training, and you might be able to change the job requirements to match the person’s capabilities (re-designing the process); but improving performance may also mean re-assigning the person to a different job where the natural variability of their performance is better tolerated, and bringing in a new person to do the original job. People aren’t machines, and managers need to design robust work processes that enable their subordinates to achieve high levels of process capability independently without frequent oversight.

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1. Managing and Control Charts « Managing in the 2000s - December 6, 2011

[…] and process control theory and extend some of the principles to other management issues. See Process Capability In the Office. I’ve been thinking lately about the similarities between the statistical analysis required […]


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