When did Process Improvement start?
One of the questions I ask students in my classes is, “When did business analysis start?” Usually, within a few seconds (and some auditory discussion) they get that it has been done since the first business was created. Which brings me to my question for this blog – when did process improvement start? If you read the second sentence, you can probably figure out that it started with the first business in existence needing to improve its process. I have evidence of this from a summer vacation to St Augustine. Yes, I still look at stuff from a BA perspective, even on vacation (it’s a sickness, I know).
I was at the Castillo de St Marcos in St Augustine, watching a historical demonstration of 18th-century fort defense. Part of that was cannon, part was infantry. It was the infantry that attracted and piqued my BA skills. The infantrymen gave a demonstration of how they fired their flintlock muskets. The stated time for the entire process was 1 shot fired every 15 seconds. Now keep in mind the soldiers had to: clean the barrel, drop a charge into the musket barrel, ram it in with the ramrod, drop the musket ball into the barrel, fill the flash pan with gunpowder, cock the hammer, aim the weapon, and only then, fire. 15 seconds? I would be lucky if I could do it in one minute. However, the more I looked at it, the more I realized how they looked at the process to improve it.
First, they drilled constantly so the soldiers would not have to think about it. It became “muscle memory” to them. Over and over again. They didn’t think about the processes, they just did it. The correct amount of gunpowder was not estimated, the necessary amount was carefully packed into a paper cartridge which was opened and poured into the barrel at the appropriate time. Same with the musket’s flash pan (which the flint struck to create the spark). The commander would call out the commands, but in most cases, the infantrymen already knew the next step. Why?
Simple. They had made the process repeatable and removed as much inefficiency as possible. Repeatable in that the soldiers knew exactly what needed to be done. One of them fell due to combat? Another knew the drill and could take his place immediately. Efficient? Sure. The soldiers did not have to measure the amount of gunpowder. The measuring had already been done prior to the battle, and the exact amount was packed into cartridges. Efficient and repeatable
When looking at your processes, how can you take what the infantry developed and apply it to your organization? If you concentrate on just the pre-measured powder packets, you can see how they were using those to prevent mistakes. By taking out decisions in the process, you can forget about having to fix errors in the process because you PREVENT errors from happening in the first place. Just like pre-measured gunpowder packets prevented incorrect measurement, error prevention in your processes ensures you don’t have to design a second process to correct them later. Have employees entering expense accounts? Make sure they have a predefined list of categories to choose from, instead of entering them. Instead of having an accounting associate validate the entries later, build in controls that don’t allow incorrect entries to come in during process execution.
Now I’m not saying that your business area is a combat zone, but what can you learn about your processes from the 18th century militia with flintlock muskets?