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Business Process Improvement: The Breakthrough Strategy

Business Process Improvement: The Breakthrough Strategy for Total Quality, Productivity, and Competitiveness.



Sponsored by the American Society for Quality Control, Business Process Improvement: The Breakthrough Strategy for Total Quality, Productivity, and Competitiveness by H. James Harrington provides readers with a comprehensive “how-to” guide for establishing and sustaining business processes. Published in 1991, Harrington takes a broad-brush approach to introduce principles of business process improvement (BPI), which remain relevant today, even if his examples feel a bit dated at times. Regardless, Harrington presents a clear and well-organized text that prevails as one of the top recommended publications for those seeking to improve quality, productivity, and efficiency in their organization.



The Five Phases of Business Process Improvement


The entire book is structured to discuss the five phases of BPI, which makes navigating the text simple for both business process novices and experts alike. Harrington describes the BPI methodology as follows:



Phase I: Organize for Improvement


The initial focus is on creating a well-defined and evaluated plan for process improvement.  Harrington takes care to define the various roles and duties of the process improvement team (PIT), with special attention paid to matching the right person with the right job.



Phase II: Understand the Process


Once the PIT is formed, Harrington turns his focus to creating graphic representations of the activities that make up a process – simply put, flowcharts. The reader is introduced to an array of flowcharting methods from the simple, mile-high view of a block flow diagram to the more detailed ANSI standard flowchart. The book also provides a reference table of standard flowchart symbols to ensure any process is clearly communicated.


Harrington goes on to highlight five characteristics of business processes for consideration, assuming the PIT has verified how the process is performing and if its understanding of the process is truly correct. As defined by Harrington, these characteristics are:


  • Flow:The methods for transforming input into output
  • Effectiveness:How well customer expectations are met
  • Efficiency:How well resources are used to produce an output
  • Cycle Time:The time taken for the transformation from input to final output
  • Cost:The expense of the entire process


Taking the time to collect meaningful data and understand the process in the beginning stages saves a lot of wasted time and effort later on. As the adage goes, “A problem well-stated is half-solved.”



Phase III: Streamline


Streamlining suggests the elimination of excess and wastage, which in turn leads to improved performance and quality. While previous chapters focus on preparing for change, this chapter provides the reader with a toolbox of proven techniques to be applied to business processes. Harrington’s step-by-step approach represents two primary goals: 1.) to adopt practical and effective principles to improve work methods, and 2.) to develop an organized approach to improvement.   



Phase IV: Measure & Control


Harrington calls for a system to measure the business process for ongoing improvement through in-process observation and monitoring. Measurements tend to be a major obstacle and daunting task for improved business processes in many organizations. However, a process that is not measured is a process that is not managed. A clear outline of the “Who, What, When Where, and Why?” of process measurement, feedback, and action provides the reader with a good foundation for overcoming various measurement obstacles.



Phase V: Continuously Improve


Being committed to continuous improvement is a road less traveled by many organizations. In a world where standards of quality, customer needs, and expectations are a top priority and are constantly changing, organizations cannot afford to not change and improve along with them. The final chapters of the book present various strategies and tools – like celebrating process improvement milestones and the benchmarking process (BMP) – to help keep organizations active in their continuous improvement efforts.



Some Reflection Questions: What are some of the BPI principles that remain most relevant today?  If the book were updated and re-released in today’s world, what might have been added?






Harrington, H. J. (1991).  Business Process Improvement: The Breakthrough Strategy for Total Quality, Productivity, and Competitiveness. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

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