To optimize the effectiveness of our Improvement efforts, it’s important that we begin with a thorough understanding of both the situations we’re trying to improve as well as our own thinking and decision-making processes.
But these tasks are not always easy.
The quality of the output of any process is determined by two things:
- The quality of the input to the process
- The quality and reliability of the process of converting the input to the desired output.
Shortcomings in either of these will result in poor quality output. In this regard, the Continuous Improvement process is like any other process: the desired output, i.e., meaningful and lasting improvements, is produced when high quality information about the current reality is studied and analyzed by a systematic thinking process unencumbered by preconceptions, untested assumptions, and biases.
The Foundational Step
Gathering the right input about the current situation is the foundational step. If we overlook important information at this step, we are unlikely to achieve a meaningful and lasting solution.
We suggest the following four major types of input to produce high quality Continuous Improvement:
- Quantitative data about the current situation: How frequently does the process deliver high quality? When it fails to deliver high quality, where and how does it fail, what types of failures occur, what are the impacts of those types of failures, what factors seem highly correlated with the failures? Quantitative data about the process provides important information about how and where the process succeeds and fails.
- Observations and insights from people closest to the work: This includes the people actually doing the work and the customers and the suppliers of the work. Members of all these groups can bring unique and important perspectives about how the system is working and some ideas about how it might work better. Recipients of the output of the process (internal or external customers) can also provide a great deal of insight: what are their pain points and what do they value? Taken together, observations from people close to the work provide valuable input to the improvement process.
- Documentation of process flow charts or value stream maps: Gather a team of knowledgeable participants to compile a step-by-step understanding of how the process works, where the bottlenecks and opportunities for error take place, where the work sits waiting, where and how the work is inspected and reworked.
- Direct observation with new eyes: An outsider watching the process will often notice an aspect of the work or work environment that is so familiar to the people closest to the work, they no longer see or notice it. This information will not surface in interviews with people close to the work nor in process mapping. The only way to surface a full understanding of the factors influencing quality and productivity is to spend time directly observing the work.