Recently, a large-scale financial services company recently wanted to reengineer the process for its entire customer services organization, including people, process and technology. This company had, during the last two years, trained many Black Belts and Green Belts. It attempted to use Six Sigma methodology as the primary method of introducing customer-focused process improvement to the organization. The company had executed a number of Green Belt projects with some success, but not to the degree or at a pace that satisfied the executive management team. Six Sigma was seen as a way of driving down costs and improving steps within a process, but not the entire process itself.

Because the company was new to Six Sigma, it was not ready for Design for Six Sigma. Instead, it opted for using the traditional process reengineering approach and the concept of prototyping to leverage Six Sigma and quickly identify and implement process improvements from a complete, end-to-end process starting from a customer’s perspective.

Just What Is Prototyping?

Prototyping is the process of quickly creating a working model (a prototype) to test various aspects of a design, illustrate ideas or features, and gather early user feedback. Prototyping is often treated as an integral part of the system design process, because it is thought to reduce project risk and cost. Often, one or more prototypes are made in a process of incremental development where each prototype is influenced by the performance of previous designs. In this way, problems or deficiencies in design can be corrected.

When the prototype is sufficiently refined and meets the functionality, robustness, manufacturability and other design goals, the product is ready for production. In terms of a process reengineering effort, prototypes are employed to help process designers build an illustrative example of the process in question that is intuitive and easy to manipulate for project participants and the process owner. In Six Sigma terms, prototyping is an iterative process that can be used in the Analyze phase of the DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control) methodology.

During the assessment portion of a traditional process reengineering activity (Define and Measure phases in DMAIC), process reengineering analysts gather information about the organization’s current procedures and business processes related to the proposed customer experience that need to be improved. In addition, they study the current information system, if there is one, conduct user interviews and collect documentation. This helps the business analysts develop an initial set of voice of the customer (VOC) and data requirements.

Prototyping can augment this process because it converts these basic, yet sometimes intangible, specifications into a tangible but limited working model of the desired future state process. The user feedback gained from developing a physical model that the users can touch and see facilitates an evaluative response that the project manager can employ to modify existing requirements as well as develop new ones.

Prototyping comes in many forms from which users and developers can paste controls and objects to high-tech operational systems using computer-aided software engineering or fourth-generation programming languages, and everything in between. Many organizations use multiple prototyping tools. For example, some will use paper in the initial analysis to facilitate concrete user feedback and then later develop an operational prototype using fourth-generation languages, such as Visual Basic, during the design stage.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Prototyping

Some advantages of prototyping:

  • Reduces process design time
  • Requires user involvement
  • Allows for collection of quantifiable user feedback
  • Facilitates implementation because users know what to expect
  • Results in higher user satisfaction
  • Exposes culture to potential future-state scenarios

Some disadvantages of prototyping:

  • Can lead to insufficient analysis
  • Can lead to user expectations that performance of the ultimate process will be the same as the prototype
  • Can lead to process owners becoming too attached to their prototypes
  • Can cause systems to be left unfinished and/or implemented before they are ready
  • Can lead to incomplete documentation

When to Use Prototyping

Because prototypes inherently increase the quality and amount of communication between the developer/analyst and the end user, their use has become widespread. Prototyping should be employed only when users are able to participate actively in the project. Both project managers and users involved in the project should have some prototyping experiences or, at a minimum, be trained in the purposes and use of prototyping.

If experimentation and learning are needed before there can be full commitment to a project, prototyping can be successfully used. Prototyping runs the spectrum from advanced computer modeling to writing it down on the back of a napkin. Actually, something in between usually works best, and using paper-based prototypes in a facilitated group design session was the actual approach for this financial services effort.

This approach lowers the cost and time involved in prototyping, allows for more iterations and gives project managers the chance to get immediate user feedback on refinements to the design. It effectively eliminates many of the disadvantages of prototyping because paper prototypes are inexpensive to create, managers are less likely to become attached to their work, users do not develop performance expectations, and best of all, paper prototypes do not depend on the system being available.

Preparing for a Typical Prototyping Session

Even though a paper-based prototype is relatively easy from logistics and expense standpoints, in order to be successful prototypes must be well planned. Here is an example of a checklist to prepare a team for an actual prototype session:

  • Scheduling
    • Be sure to set aside ample time for the meeting to allow for participants to focus on the task at hand.
    • Schedule a specific time for testing because the prototype process involves setting up a model and lab in which team members can test how things work.
  • Objectives
    • Set a specific objective, with the idea that the team will pull together everything known about the process redesign in order to prototype.
    • Set design principles and goals. For example: What will allow 80 to 90 percent of transactions to go through the entire process right the first time? What will allow the fewest hand-offs, checks, rework and waiting?
    • Plan to identify changes to the process that do not require technology as well as those that need some technology change.
    • Keep in mind that “good enough” is appropriate for the beginning of the prototype process.
  • What to Bring
    • Prepare a flow on boards. Use as many boards as you need to make it read left to right. Make visible the differences between flows, if important.
    • Have one printed copy of all flows available.
    • Have copies of any forms needed for each process.
    • Bring an estimate of process time/touch time for each of the flows.
    • Bring information on backlogs.
    • Bring the voice of your internal customer to the meeting in the form of verbatim quotes from participants about problems, their expectations or their experiences.
    • Have documentation available on several “real” transactions. Include examples of both good paths and horror cases.
    • Have a process dashboard for volume, errors, cycle time, per unit costs and per transaction costs.
    • Include a summary page about both formal and informal service level agreements (SLAs).
    • Bring summarized information on five successful plans or processes so the team can test some ideas.
    • Have yellow cards with the top reasons for the most frequent errors, the most frequent errors that customers discover, and the top employee complaints. Around five each is sufficient. Any supporting data can be useful, like actual frequency.
    • Have available a list of known and scheduled changes, upgrades and improvements to the systems used in the process being prototyped to see what can be built upon or what can be stopped.
    • Have screen prints available of any web-related activities or key system screens used.
    • Bring copies of reference materials that may be needed to answer questions and facilitate how to accomplish the design principles.
  • What Each Team Member Should Do
    • Review the process flows prior to the prototyping meeting.
    • Bring to the meeting written notes that answer the question, “If I were king or queen with absolute power, what would I do to achieve our design principles?”

Understand Current and Future States

Even a simple paper-based prototype session needs to be well thought out and uses many of the same types of information any DMAIC project also might use in the Analyze phase. A facilitated prototyping session is one of the key ways leaders of an organization can define and document process improvement opportunities regardless of whether they choose to use traditional reengineering techniques or the Lean and Six Sigma methodologies to execute the strategy.

A large reengineering effort can be overwhelming to an organization if it is implemented with no regard to that organization’s change management history, culture and readiness. That being said, the starting point for reengineering a process – as well as any organized approach to making changes to enhance the customer experience and affect the profit of an organization – is understanding the current and future state processes. Although DFSS might be the ideal approach, the use of prototyping can position an organization to quickly define, document, analyze, prioritize and recommend solutions, and create follow-up plans to move toward its financial and strategic goals.

About the Author