Window on Process Improvement

April 1, 2010
Process improvement is routinely portrayed as a journey, so any tool that tips the scales in favor of the journey taker is well worth bringing along.
In skillful hands, one tool of discovery and analysis that has been reliable on the journey of process improvement is the symbolic workflow map. But depending on how it’s built, the workflow map could be powerfully helpful, powerfully irrelevant or powerfully counterproductive.Fundamentally, a workflow map graphically represents a production system as input/output relationships (preferably annotated with key metrics) involving materials, actions and control signals that combine to create “something.” Its purpose is to make it easier for people familiar with similar systems to change the system of interest constructively. Therefore, a workflow map is a communication device with a distinct audience and a distinct purpose.An effective workflow map embodies a paradox: the better it does its job, the less noticeable it becomes. A good map lets its audience see through it to the production system underneath. It puts as little burden on the audience as possible. It exhibits clarity. Even the most complex, unique production system can be represented by a workflow map with clarity, but it will not happen by accident. It will only happen by applying proven principles and conventions.Before a single workflow symbol appears on any chart, the maximum value from a workflow map will be determined by the extent that the company has earned the trust of shop-floor personnel. This trust has nothing to do with sentimentality. It is, rather, a data-quality requirement. Even when much of the data that feeds a workflow map is obtained automatically by a data-acquisition system, knowledge concerning many of the best opportunities for process improvement must be extracted from shop-floor experience.Validity essential“The return on workflow mapping investment is a function of the map’s validity,” says Chris Spivey, president of Spivey & Co. LLC (, a Dallas-based consulting firm. “The biggest threat to validity is lack of collaboration. Each staffing role taking part in a workflow will see it from a different perspective. Each perspective will be partially valid. You need an honest picture from all the perspectives to get a solid map.”As soon as the workflow map is created, some of the most important work begins: The workflow map must be painstakingly validated against real production runs. Validation can be done manually—stopwatch and clipboard—but, increasingly and thankfully, validation is often folded into a broader and more comprehensive shop-floor data-acquisition system.“Our product, Proficy Workflow, is similar to an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) business process management system applied to shop floor activities,” says Greg Millinger, product general manager for Proficy Workflow and SOA Platform at automation supplier GE Intelligent Platforms (, in Charlottesville, Va. “Real shop-floor data, continuously acquired and compared with a reference workflow map, rapidly uncovers problems and opportunities, and allows the map to become a dynamic model with ongoing relevance.”Kal Nawawi, director of manufacturing for Carl Zeiss Meditec AG (, a medical technology supplier in Jena, Germany, agrees that automated data validation is a real step forward in actually applying a workflow map to process improvement problems. “By repeatedly collecting data against the workflow map steps with our Camstar enterprise platform system, we get instant visibility, enforcement and traceability. Corrective actions are faster, and root‑cause analyses are better.”When done right, the workflow map is a true ally. The amount of work that goes into a good map is considerable, but the results are worth it. “A graphic workflow map has astonishing impact,” says Millinger. “With the map on the table, even very knowledgeable customers often respond with something like, ‘Why the heck are we doing things this way?’”Marty Weil, [email protected], is an Automation World Contributing Writer.Spivey & Co. LLCwww.spiveynco.comGE Intelligent Zeiss Meditec

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