Variation: Process Enemy Number One

Wanted Dead or Alive PosterOne of the key tenets of Lean, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, and a host of other business process improvement philosophies is the reduction of variation within business processes.  The variation-focus is so important because process variation has profound implications for the repeatability and sustainability of the process itself.  In other words, it is impossible to become consistently good at achieving anything if you do not have any control over the results. 

While this may appear to be academic, numerous business owners continue to underestimate the perils of allowing large amounts of process variation to exist.  Would you believe me if I told you that reducing variation in a particular business processes is even more important than achieving the goal of that process?  You tell me, then.  Would you ever board a commercial aircraft that was flown by a pilot who has landed safely, but didn’t know how he landed safely and couldn’t assure you that he could do it again?  Or drive knowing that your automobile had a steering malfunction even though your car had never left the road?

Let’s explore exactly why variation within business processes is so bad.  Let’s take, for example, two vastly different basketball players.  We will label the first player Business Process A and the second player Business Process B.  Business Process A is very unpredictable in his shooting.  He often takes wild shots and can sometimes miss the rim entirely.  He does, however, manage to get the basketball in the hoop 75% of the time.  Business Process B, on the other hand, is very consistent.  He always take the same shot from the same spot on the floor, uses the same technique, and his shots are almost always  about a foot short and to the left, resulting in a meager 10% shooting average.  Which one of these two business processes has the most potential for improvement?

While one might think that Business Process A who already has a 75% shooting average would have the greatest potential, we have no idea what steps to take to improve his shooting percentage since there is a great deal of variation in his shooting style.  To improve Business Process B, on the other hand, all we have to do is move him one foot to the right and closer to the rim and he should be able to achieve very close to a 100% shooting percentage. Business Process B, therefore, would have the greatest potential for improvement.

The point of the above analogy is to demonstrate that until we are able to eradicate the variation within our business processes, we really do not have any control.  Without control, the success or failure of a business process can only be determined by chance and all we can do is hope for the best.  Once we are able to gain control of the process by eliminating process variation, we can now take proactive positive steps to improve it so that the process yields consistently successful results.

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3 responses to “Variation: Process Enemy Number One”

  1. Charles Mitchell

    Great article that really gets to the point – many overlook the true potential in the minimization of variation.

  2. Vinish

    Interesting. Quite useful post even in IT development operations. Thanks for sharing it.

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