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Optimize your business operations through lean problem solving


It’s time to shake things up a little over here with a fellow Ops friend, Brooke Scott, MBA, of Agency 23. Today we’re diving into how to use lean problem solving to optimize your business ops.

As business owners, we are told time and again that we should be constantly looking for ways to optimize and improve our business processes. But, if you don’t know where to start with optimization (or what that even means for you, if it’s not your area of expertise) then you’re stuck trying to figure out what you need to do without a plan to even get there. Sometimes you aren’t sure what area of your business to get started with optimization and you aren’t sure if it’s going to be a waste of time or worth the effort. What if I told you that it didn’t have to be that hard?

Shifting the way you approach optimizing your business will put you on the right path to be able to get to your ideal state (or goal) for your business. You have to first look at things from a micro view to be able to break things down individually so that you can take aligned strategic action on separate things before you can be able to see that ideal bigger picture. Taking micro directed focus will give you a clearer lens to the macro view of your business because you’ll be able to take a step back and see how the smaller targeted plans are connected to and aligned with your business to propel you forward quicker towards that result you’re looking for.

Introducing the use of lean process improvement techniques will allow you to strategically plan while simultaneously (and with less friction) removing the wasted time, energy, space, efforts, money, and more that is showing up (or not visible) in your business so that you can optimize your business processes. Lean process improvement techniques not only open the door to thorough and streamlined processes, but they also show you areas where you can start implementing new processes or systems without the clouded view you once had.

In order to get started, you have to first understand what it means to operate with lean observation in mind. The concept of introducing a “lean” approach to your business operations and development means you’re implementing strategic routines and processes that closely evaluate performance and progress through specific approaches and ways of thinking. When you’re able to evaluate your business from a lean perspective, you will be able to finally see the areas that are connected to your bottom line along with the areas that aren’t. Which leads to you being able to remove those areas from your business so that you can streamline your business and introduce space for new initiatives that are in alignment with your bottom line.

What Lean Process Improvement Techniques Are

Lean process improvement techniques are approaches to optimization through strategically planning with simplicity in mind. What that means exactly, is it’s not something that is complicated or requires any other sort of knowledge to achieve. At it’s core definition, lean is a way to evaluating what’s working, what isn’t and what you can do about it through different practices. There isn’t a right or wrong way to approach using lean process improvement techniques. It’s simply knowing what type can help you achieve what you’re looking for. You can break things down intensively through more complex techniques, and can also keep things super simple through quicker and less complex techniques. If you’re just getting started implementing the use of lean in your business, I would recommend starting with a less complex approach. 

Types of Lean Process Improvement Techniques

A few types of lean process improvement techniques are: (From Most to Least Complex)

  • Team-Based Improvement Projects
  • Targeted Problem Solving
  • Rapid Countermeasures 

Before diving into things, keep in mind that these “types” of improvement techniques are not formally named or a stand alone solution or “bracket” for all solutions. These are three all encompassing buckets that can be further broken down into different approaches and examples. For example, the “rapid countermeasures” could be broken down into a more wide-variety of approaches like PDSA, SIPOC, Cascading Metrics, and more. While the more complex approach for “team-based” improvement projects are more linear in how you would approach them. 

In this article, we are going to focus a “middle-man” process improvement technique, in the terms of complexity, so that you can see how things can move in a simple but targeted way of thinking. It will also give you a better understanding of what term of “complexity” you’re comfortable with or will work best for you, your team, and your business. For a breakdown of how you can implement an example of rapid countermeasures (a less complex approach), learn more about the PDSA approach here, and stay tuned for a more detailed update for this article.

Breaking It Down – Targeted Lean Problem Solving

This approach to problem solving is not your average checklist in terms of solving a problem. Lean problem solving is a way of thinking that introduces the use of visualization, narrows the scope of the problem, and takes the most simplistic approach to optimizing the issue. In this approach, you are systematically thinking through the problem to address issues that aren’t working, address the stand alone “pop-up” issues that are related to the main issue, help the team propose solutions to the problems identified, and structure suggested systems for maintenance moving forward.

The overall purpose of this approach is to use the planning phase as a guide for your optimization and document the movement throughout so that you can effectively understand how you reached the point of implementation for the future to make sure you don’t run into the same issues again. If you do, then you already have an action plan. This approach can take between 30-90 days to complete. During the 2-part planning phases, make sure to account for the realistic amount time that would need to be spent on each portion.

In the first half of this problem solving technique, the goal is to keep the view of this approach from the perspective of your ideal client. You can use this approach for internal optimization but the main goal is to reflect change and optimize based on how things are related to your ideal client. This portion should be completed first, without rushing so that everyone fully understands the main problem and the sub “problems” entirely before moving on to action planning.

Part 1 Steps:

  • Identify The Main Issue: Identify what isn’t working. This should be kept to the factual evidence of what is or isn’t happening. Leave this as your broad issue for this project.
  • Determine The Background Of The Issue: What’s the history and how broken is it? Determine where the data is living for this issue. How often does this happen? How much does this cost (time and money)? How is this connected to strategy and alignment of your business? Is it even aligned with your business? For a way to determine if something is in alignment with your business, learn more about Cascading Metrics (an example of a rapid countermeasure you can implement first) here, and stay tuned for a more detailed update for this article.
  • Outline The Current State: How does it look now? Introduce the use of Value Stream Mapping or Flowcharting to visually map out what the process or issue looks like so that you can easily identify the wasted areas. In this visual, give a complete view of the problem, not a high level summary. Let this be the simple facts of what happens.
  • Analysis: Why is this happening? Here is where you can start identifying the root causes of the problem using the 5 Why Method. At each “why” step, ask yourself if the root cause is clear and actionable. The issues (roughly 4-5) that are under (or related to) the main issue are what you would individually break down here to identify what the strengths and weaknesses are so that you can take aligned action when reducing the waste. This is where facts can be vague, meaning if it’s not there, it’s not there so don’t assume. Putting out the facts versus assumptions will allow you to see where things are disconnected when evaluating those strengths and weaknesses.

    Through assessing those issues individually, you can identify if the process, a gap, or waste is either a strength or a weakness and then will know where you need to direct your focus. (If the problem is “bigger” than this analysis, you will need a more complex approach to optimization for problem solving. The scope of the problem is too big and needs a different approach or needs to be broken down into smaller sections to tackle via this problem solving method. If the scope of the problem is more simple and doesn’t need this in depth analysis, you can shift to a less complex approach to lean process improvement.) 

Part 2 Steps:

  • Determine Your Target Condition: This is where you will outline the possible solutions and multiple target conditions of the problem based on your analysis. How should your target condition look? How do you WANT it to look? You can again incorporate the use of Value Stream Mapping or Flowcharting to visually map this out so that you can realistically plan how can this ideal target (or solution to the problem) can exist, and how it looks and can operate within 60-90 days.
  • Outline The Countermeasures: Countermeasures are not your solutions. These are what changes can be made for each root cause you defined in your analysis.
  • Testing: Based on your analysis, target condition and the countermeasures for that target, what (if any) tests (what can you do) can be executed to increase the success rate of the implementation? What can you test during the implementation phase to get to your ideal state? This can be multiple things. The goal is to narrow down what approach will work best for your business.
  • Implementation Planning: This is where you pilot or beta your solution to the problem. How will the countermeasures be implemented? During the implementation planning, make sure to over communicate the plan and date for completion to your team for realistic and achievable milestones for schedules and tasks. 
  • Determine The Cost And Or Benefit: What did this cost the business in terms of effort and money? What did this benefit for the business? Are we able to make these changes to solve the issue and is it worth the time, cost and effort? This is an approach to efficiently identify the costs for implementation and what sort of ROI was achieved along with improvement to quality and satisfaction of the team, business and your clients.
  • Follow Up Planning: Can we maintain the implementation? The goal is to not only solve the problem for the most lean approach but to also maintain sustainability for the business. After you’ve reached this point, summarize each phase of the process broken down by 30, 60, and 90 days. After determining the maintenance of the solution, you can shift this project into a standardized routine, process, and SOP for your business.

After working through both parts of the process, you’ve taken an issue and strategically optimized your business operations through lean problem solving for continued alignment to your business, with your client at the forefront.

Introducing the use of lean initiatives and process improvement into your business doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s about breaking things down step-by-step and custom to your business. That’s why it works every time. It’s not about implementing a process that solved a problem for someone else’s business. It’s implementing a process that will solve a problem for your business. These approaches to “leaning up” your business are built for you, by you and allows you to strengthen your knowledge, your team involvement and your processes along the way.

Meet guest author, Brooke, MBA of Agency 23:

Brooke is a COO & Integrator and her mission is to help others optimize & restore their business operations foundation without wasting time and money. She focuses her approach to any project or task using lean fundamentals with the overall goal of keeping things streamlined from the ground up. She serves women entrepreneurs & mompreneurs, agencies, coaches, course creators & consultants by creating the swoon-worthy, efficient systems of their dreams and managing their internal & external operations so that they can get back to doing what they love in their zone of genius.

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