Art of Simulation

How can simulation help embed a process improvement culture?

Organizations are striving to embed a culture of continuous improvement in the face of rising global competition and technological disruption. But changing the mindset of how your organization approaches process improvement isn’t always straightforward. 

There can be a few hurdles to overcome. You need agreement on how current processes work, identify the best approach to improving them, and secure stakeholder buy-in throughout the project. But when you have the right tools, plans and motivation in place, it becomes much easier to embed a culture of continuous process improvement.

In this blog post, we’ll look at three key ways simulation can help you to drive change forward and embed process improvement as part of your organization’s DNA.

1. Get a true representation of how processes work

Before you can improve a process, you need to understand how it currently works. Simulation provides an impartial view and quickly cuts through any organizational politics.

Ask two simple questions at the start of an improvement project – ”How does this process work?” and “What do you think would be the best way to improve it?” – and you’ll get at least 20 different answers!

As a process improver, this won’t come as a surprise. You know that beyond fact-based assessments, everyone can be influenced by previous experience and preconceptions:

  • Some might have strong opinions on what has worked or not worked in other processes
  • Some might be reluctant to change or they might be worried about how potential changes will impact their role
  • Others could feel disillusioned by previous projects that have been ineffective, wasted time or haven’t been properly supported

Break the stalemate

Whether you’re dealing with a small manufacturing team on a simple process, or a chain of call centers spread across the world with extensive, intertwined and even hidden processes – the thought behind creating a simulation actively encourages differing views to be drawn out.

Simulation matches these views against collected data and provides a simpler, easy to understand representation of the system you want to improve. Everyone can watch as weeks, months or years of the process is played out in front of them. Any inconsistencies and inefficiencies will quickly be brought to the surface, especially between parts of a process that work independently.

This is where the real discussion starts; the debate of ‘operators say it works like this and management says it works like that’ can be validated impartially. With most process improvement projects, there’s a high chance you’ve also had to overcome the preconceptions of the HiPPOs (High in Position, with Potential Opposition) in your organization.

Using simulation, each step of the process can be walked through and a single, true agreement can be reached on how the process is working to support the current state. Through the independent insight provided by the simulation results, any stalemate can be broken and everyone has a shared, consensual view of where the process needs to be improved.

“In terms of using SIMUL8 versus value stream maps or other lean tools, the major advantage of simulation is the fact that it can be easily updated, changed or added to at any time.

Simulation enables us to create multiple scenarios where we can test our assumptions, validate variances between processes, and see how our distributions affect our manufacturing line. It also allows us to blatantly see any issues in the process versus having to find them.”

Ben Van Straten, Plexus

2. Communicate, motivate and secure buy-in for process improvement

Using simulation, you can get everyone involved in improving processes to make stronger decisions – your stakeholders don’t have to be simulation experts.

SIMUL8 Corporation’s founder, Mark Elder, was inspired to develop SIMUL8 after seeing how visual and interactive simulation could really engage people from across an organization in process improvement.

“One of my earliest projects was to answer the question “On which assembly line should we build this vehicle?”

This model was planned to be 15% of overall production and its assembly was to be merged onto one of three lines, with each differing in capability. We built a simulation using software (non-visual at that time) to do sensitivity analysis like “Is the 15% important? What if it is 20%? Or 10%?”

When we presented the results, assembly line 3 was most cost-effective under all the assumptions we had been given (including the 15%) – but the chair of the meeting was not interested in hearing all our caveats that showed the other interesting things we had discovered!

Line 3 was actually not the best line if the van was over 25% or less than 12% of total production (in reality, the van never sold more than 5% of the volume). But it was too late. Line 3 was used. Somehow none of our presentations seemed important.

We had to fix this. So we built a wooden board game simulation, using dice to generate variability and counters to represent cars in the factory. We took this to show the plant director in the hope of explaining how simulation worked, so that future projects would be better understood.

We were a little concerned that he would see the board game as trivializing the complexity of his factory. But the opposite happened. He canceled all meetings for the day, called in all his senior team, and we were there until 7pm that evening.

As we left he said, “Today has been the most useful contribution operational research has ever made to my plant”. He went on to say how much the simulation had brought his team together and that they now understood about each other’s problems.

We then automated the board game on a computer screen and simulation became visual. However, a much more important outcome was that from then on clients were involved throughout the project. Because they could see and understand what we were doing they wanted to be involved. They didn’t need to listen to all our assumptions and caveats because there was no need for the presentation – they knew the answers from the simulation.”

Engage stakeholders

Actively encouraging, educating and reinforcing continuous improvement will have a big impact on the success of change initiatives.

Processes are driven by owners and experts. Owners take overall responsibility for the system while experts know the process inside out as they work on it day-to-day. Bringing process owners and experts together to improve processes is crucial for success. Changes are more likely to succeed when process experts with domain knowledge feel motivated and empowered in process improvement.

Simulation offers a powerful, evidence-based approach for decision making. Using a virtual representation to test the impact of process changes and ‘what if’ scenarios, both process owners and experts have the opportunity to give feedback and find the approach that delivers the best results. They can then reach a common understanding of what needs done and are motivated to work together to put the agreed plan into action.

Build and maintain buy-in

As simulation tools like SIMUL8 are visual and animated, they’re also instrumental for overcoming one of the most common process improvement pain points – securing and maintaining decision-maker buy-in.

Far too often, great opportunities can be passed by because the project potential was lost in a long briefing report or because nobody was really captivated by presentations full of colorful charts.

Simulation is more convincing than just displaying the end results. Whether your simulation shows a large queue building-up, or a series of activities grinding to a halt due to a lack of stock, nothing is more effective at generating desire for change than showing decision-makers these issues playing out in front of them.

You can then really grab attention by showing them the improved simulation where these issues have been resolved – helping your project quickly rise to the top of a competing pile of priorities!

3. Encourage innovation and uncover more improvement ideas

Simulation fosters and supports an environment where rapid creative thinking and new ideas are continually encouraged.

Innovation is all about trying something that hasn’t been tried before. But creating and maintaining a culture where employees feel comfortable to experiment isn’t always easy.

When trying to embed continual improvement, organizations will face resistance to changing the status quo, fear of failing, or find that people say they don’t have time to dedicate to improving processes. Simulation can be key to encouraging and sustaining continuous improvement.

“Until we used simulation, there was no real means of testing changes without risk. The fact that simulation can safely test the impact of changes and support decision making has been very valuable, particularly in a healthcare environment.”

Carly Henshaw, Improvement Facilitator, The Scarborough Hospital

Conquer the fear of failure

Fear of failure or wasting time are often the biggest barriers to innovation. If organizations want to innovate, it’s important to allow room for mistakes or errors. Did you know that products like penicillin, pacemakers and even potato chips were all created by mistake?

Simulation removes the uncertainty around trying new approaches or improving processes. As simulations are virtual sandboxes where you can test any number of ideas, it doesn’t carry the same risks that you might experience with real life experimentation, like increased costs or reduced productivity.

Innovative ideas are also refined over time. Simulation is also an iterative process where process owners and experts can work together to improve the solution to the problem and see the impact on results. Even if an idea fails in the first simulation, it can be quickly tweaked in ways that could eventually deliver great results.

Why use simulation over other process improvement tools?

Getting people excited about process improvement can be a challenge. But working with our clients for over 20 years at SIMUL8 Corporation, we have watched process improvement projects thrive through the use of simulation.

With any process modeling method you can put in some inputs and get the impact on outputs. Simulation does this very well to any level of detail – from very large and complex systems, to strategic summary level. But one of the unique benefits is that it encourages anyone who takes part to go through a ‘cycle of learning’ and improvement.

The act of running the simulation starts to generate more ideas and helps to embed a culture of continuous improvement. With so many possibilities, the only real downside is that it can sometimes make it hard to know when you have really finished an improvement project!

“Everybody accepts management tools that we have now as the way to approach a problem, but even a lean project with good statistical analysis will only give you the results of that statistical analysis. It won’t draw a picture of what your whole operation will look like; that is what simulation does that is unique.”

Jim Scheulen, Chief Administrative Officer, Johns Hopkins

Learn more about Simul8 and Process Improvement

Find out more about simulation as a process improvement software, or learn more about the benefits of Simul8 simulation software by getting in touch with our team today.