Selecting opportunities to improve your processes

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  • Environmental Quality Management / Autumn 2004 / 83

    2004 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.Published online in Wiley InterScience ( 10.1002/tqem.20028

    Robert B. Pojasek


    Selecting Opportunities To Improve Your Processes

    Pollution prevention (aka cleaner production) is

    one aspect of what business refers to as process

    improvementa form of improvement that has

    flourished since the beginning of the Industrial


    At the heart of process improvement lies the

    identification and selection of improvement op-

    portunities. Once potential opportunities have

    been found, there must be a means for choosing

    the particular opportunities that will be the focus

    of the process-improvement program.

    The reader is cautioned that the choice of a

    process-improvement opportunity does not dic-

    tate that a particular solution must be followed in

    order to realize that improvement opportunity. I

    add this caution since many process-improvement

    specialists do not seem to recognize the distinction

    between an opportunity for improvement and an

    alternative solution (aka a recommendation).

    This installment of the Quality Toolbox col-

    umn begins by discussing some commonly used

    methodologies that can lead practitioners into

    this confusionand then explains how using the

    Systems Approach to process improvement can

    help keep these steps distinct, while greatly en-

    hancing the selection process.

    Commonly Used Methods for ApproachingImprovement Opportunities

    Pollution Prevention OpportunityAssessments

    Pollution prevention opportunity assess-

    ments (PPOAs) were first formalized in 1988 with

    the publication of the U.S. Environmental Protec-

    tion Agencys Waste Minimization Opportunity As-

    sessment Manual (EPA 625/7-88/003). PPOAs are

    still the method of choice among many practi-

    tioners who offer pollution prevention (P2) tech-

    nical assistance.

    This methodology enables a person who is in-

    dependent of a facility to conduct an assessment

    of the facilitys operation. Often, checklists and

    literature describing sector-specific success stories

    are used to support the assessment. Emphasis is

    placed on materials substitution and the use of

    what is referred to as clean technology.

    Those using the PPOA approach tend to blur

    the distinction between opportunities for im-

    provement and recommendations for ways to

    make the improvement. They often make defini-

    tive recommendations that they present as right

    answers to the problems they identify.

    These practitioners generally make no at-

    tempt to create a complete list of opportunities

    for improving the process. In addition, employ-

    ees are not actively involved in the selection of

    opportunities or the derivation of alternative so-

    lutions. The focus is on the facilitys wastes and

    process losses, not on the process itself. Users of

    the PPOA approach rarely use root cause analysis

    to understand the ultimate cause of process losses

    and materials use.

    They also give little consideration to sys-

    tems thinking (i.e., the concept that every-

  • Robert B. Pojasek 84 / Autumn 2004 / Environmental Quality Management

    thing in the process is connected to everything

    else). Because of this lack of systems thinking,

    the alternative solutions that PPOA users pro-

    pose often cause other problems after they are


    Despite these obvious drawbacks, the PPOA

    approach remains vibrant todayin large part be-

    cause it is the methodology with which most P2

    technical assistance providers are most familiar.

    Mass Balance AnalysisThose technical assistance providers who

    have been trained with the United Nations In-

    dustrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

    method generally use mass balance to find op-

    portunities for cleaner production. This meth-

    odology provides a

    more complete listing

    of opportunities than

    do PPOAs. However, it

    is still focused on

    wastes and not on the

    process per se.

    Mass balance is

    also very time-

    consuming and expensive to pursue. One techni-

    cal assistance group using this method was quite

    proud of the fact that it takes five engineers about

    three weeks to produce a voluminous report,

    complete with the independent recommenda-

    tions that are the hallmark of the approach.

    As with PPOAs, little consideration is paid to

    systems thinking. Often, the technical assistance

    providers ignore important supporting opera-

    tions since they are considered to be separate

    processes, and thus not part of the system that is

    under review.

    In addition, they often rely heavily on the use

    of success stories; accounts of past successes typi-

    cally are organized by sector and maintained in a

    variety of different databases, with many avail-

    able on the Internet. As with the PPOA approach,

    employees are not usually directly involved in

    the mass balance process.

    Identifying and Selecting Opportunities withthe Systems Approach

    The Systems Approach uses a very different

    methodology to identify and select opportunities

    for improvement.

    The Systems Approach first seeks to under-

    stand the production process by preparing a se-

    ries of hierarchical process maps, which describe

    process work steps in more detail as the user pro-

    gresses through successive levels of maps. All sup-

    porting processes, as well as resources used and

    losses incurred, are linked to their appropriate

    process work steps using accounting sheets.1

    Process maps take some skill to prepare. How-

    ever, the necessary proficiency can be readily de-

    veloped with practice.

    Process maps are first prepared in preliminary

    form using process documentation from both the

    facility and the available literature. These prelim-

    inary process maps are then verified during as-

    sessment of the process itself. Employees are ac-

    tively involved in this verification activity, and

    are asked two direct questions:

    What has been accomplished in the past two

    years to improve this work step?

    If money was not an object and you could

    have your own way, what would you suggest

    could be done to improve your work step?

    The answers to these questions provide the first

    step toward identifying opportunities for improv-

    ing the process. Identifying past process improve-

    ments reminds employees that process improve-

    ment is not a new program. It also creates an

    impression that the process-improvement program

    will simply add to what has been done before.

    Because employees never resist their own

    ideas, this method of questioning directly en-

    As with the PPOA approach,employees are not usually directlyinvolved in the mass balanceprocess.

  • Environmental Quality Management / Autumn 2004 / 85Quality Toolbox

    (that is, conserve resources and eliminate wastes)

    will be a very long one. There has to be a method

    to help the organization focus on the vital few

    processes that lie among the trivial many.

    The Pareto ScreenIn order to avoid being overwhelmed, the Sys-

    tems Approach recommends that a process im-

    provement program focus on only eight to 11 op-

    portunities at a time. One useful tool for

    narrowing down the list of potential opportuni-

    ties is Pareto screening.

    Pareto analysis is based on the observation

    that, in general, about

    20 percent of the op-

    portunities that you

    identify will generate

    80 percent of the value

    associated with your


    program. This is why

    Pareto analysis is often

    referred to as the

    80/20 principle. Pareto screening will help you

    identify this essential 20 percent.

    There are two key virtues of using Pareto

    screening. First, it helps the facility focus on

    those opportunities that are likely to be most im-

    portant. Second, the results of such screening can

    be converted into a bar graph. This creates an eye-

    catching visual image that clearly shows manage-

    ment and employees why it is imperative to ad-

    dress certain opportunities.

    An example of a Pareto chart for a silverplat-

    ing operation is shown in Exhibit 1. The variousactivities associated with the plating operation

    have been organized according to the costs they

    incur. As you can see, only a handful of activities

    account for a large majority of the overall cost of

    the plating process. This type of visual depiction

    of impacts can quickly grab peoples attention

    and focus their interest on key problems.

    gages them in coming up with opportunities for

    improvement. Contrast this interactive, hands-

    on approach with the standard PPOA method,

    which involves using checklists and does not

    reach out to employees.

    Hierarchical process maps encourage systems

    thinking. Using them, employees can see how

    each work step utilizes resources and creates

    wastes. They can also see how supporting

    processes add to the use of resources and create

    additional wastes as a direct result of their own

    particular work steps.

    More importantly, employees can see that real

    prevention often happens upstream from their ac-

    tivity. That is, something in a previous work step

    may be causing them not to have to drill a hole or

    wash the assembly. Such knowledge allows re-

    sources to be conserved and wastes avoided.

    By contrast, if problems are solved only where

    they occur, downstream consequences are likely

    to remain. It is impossible to conjecture what all

    these downstream consequences may be.

    Another list of opportunities to improve the

    process can be generated from the resource ac-

    counting sheets that are prepared as part of the

    Systems Approach.2 Remember that every use of a

    resource (such as energy, water, and materials)

    represents an opportunity to conserve the use of

    that resource. Every loss of a resource in a process

    represents an opportunity not to have that loss.

    The available literature represents another

    source of potential process-improvement oppor-

    tunities. However, much of the literature is fo-

    cused on wastes (i.e., losses from the process). In

    order to make use of information from the litera-

    ture, you will need to check it against the process-

    specific information you have gathered and link

    it to the correct work step in the process. Much of

    the literature does not provide such a link to a

    process work step.

    As you can see, with the Systems Approach,

    the list of opportunities to improve the process

    Remember that every use of aresource (such as energy, water,

    and materials) represents anopportunity to conserve the use of

    that resource.

  • Robert B. Pojasek 86 / Autumn 2004 / Environmental Quality Management

    Once you have a complete list of process-

    improvement opportunities listed, assemble a

    group of people who are knowledgeable about

    the facility. Ask the group whether about one-

    fifth of the opportunities listed (i.e., 20 percent of

    the total) are significantly more important to the

    facility than the remaining opportunities. In

    most cases, the answer will be yes.

    I have found that I am usually able to get

    agreement on which opportunities should be in-

    cluded in this 20 percent. If the group cannot de-

    cide, I ask them to rate each opportunity with

    dollar signs, using four signs ($$$$) when the op-

    portunity is very important to the facility; less

    important opportunities are rated with three,

    two, and one dollar signs. By counting up the

    dollar signs, we can see which opportunities we

    should focus on when making a selection.

    Opportunities that do not make the 20-

    percent screen can still be included in the selec-

    tion process if managers or employees are partic-

    ularly interested in addressing them. However,

    you should remind participants of the need to

    stay focused and to make an informed decision

    on which opportunities to include in the process-

    improvement program.

    Even after Pareto screening is completed,

    there often are more than eight to 11 opportuni-

    ties remaining. In such a case, some additional

    method will be needed to provide further focus

    and enable the final selection.

    Scoring OpportunitiesScoring methodology can be useful to further

    narrow down the range of opportunities. If the fa-

    cility has an ISO 14001-based environmental

    management system (EMS), the process improve-

    ment opportunities (arranged by work step in the

    hierarchical process maps) can be related to the

    EMS aspects that are found on the resource ac-

    counting sheets. You can then formally score

    these aspects using the same criteria matrix that

    Exhibit 1. Pareto Chart for a Silverplating Operation

    Letters below bars refer to two-letter codes assigned to activities in the process.

  • Environmental Quality Management / Autumn 2004 / 87Quality Toolbox

    with fewer than about seven or eight interrelated

    projects. On the other hand, it is difficult for an

    oversight committee to keep track of more than

    11 or 12 interrelated projects during a given pe-

    riod of time.

    With this in mind, how should projects ulti-

    mately be selected?

    By scoring the opportunities you have identi-

    fied, as described above, you can get a sense of

    their importance to the facility. This should give

    you an initial idea of where your priorities

    should lie.

    However, when first starting a process-

    improvement program, other considerations may

    also be important. For

    instance, are some em-

    ployees particularly in-

    terested in addressing

    one of the identified

    opportunities? What

    opportunities, if any,

    are being addressed in

    the facilitys current

    budget or operational excellence programs?

    Would a more formal examination of funded or

    committed opportunities help ensure their suc-

    cessful resolution? Do some of these considera-

    tions overlap?

    The greatest weight should be given to proj-

    ects that employees mentioned when the hierar-

    chical process maps were being verified. Next in

    importance would be those that are similar to ex-

    isting initiatives that may already be in the man-

    agement budget, or that are currently being pur-

    sued in improvement programs such as lean

    production and Six Sigma.

    It is a good idea to conduct a dialog about the

    various projects before making the selection. It is

    crucial to generate enthusiastic employee interest

    in the opportunities that you select. This will

    help ensure the successful implementation of the

    first set of projects in your process-improvement

    the organization employs to make its determi-

    nation of significance for purposes of the EMS.

    In order to obtain a Pareto (i.e., 80 percent/20

    percent) distribution of opportunities, it may be

    necessary to use an exaggerated scoring system,

    such as the following:

    Low significance: 1 point

    Medium significance: 3 points

    High significance: 9 points.

    Some of the most common significance crite-

    ria used to score process-improvement opportu-

    nities, and their associated environmental as-

    pects, are as follows:

    Probability of occurrence of the impact asso-

    ciated with the opportunity;

    Potential for damaging vegetation, animals,

    or drinking water;

    Existence of regulations governing the oppor-

    tunity or impact;

    Potential for necessitating costly remediation


    Potential for generating substantial govern-

    ment enforcement penalties;

    Potential for creating a negative organiza-

    tional image;

    Potential for causing full or partial opera-

    tional shutdowns;

    Potential for g...