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Is Your Improvement Project Headed Down the Road to Nowhere?

by Tim Kane
July 22, 2015

Is Your Improvement Project Headed Down the Road to Nowhere?

by Tim Kane
July 22, 2015 | Comments (0)

Well, we know where we're goin'
But we don't know where we've been
And we know what we're knowin'
But we can't say what we've seen

- David Byrne, Talking Heads

PDCA misgivings can persist at even the most data-driven, forward-thinking organizations. Often we are just uncomfortable with the notion of changing the way we work. Why? The scientific method, applied consistently to the way we work, requires us to adjust not only to a stressful one-time change event; we effectively are embracing something more akin to a “sea change.” Together it can feel like we are hopping on an evidence-based PDCA cycle, beginning a continuous improvement journey that lasts, well, forever.

Unfortunately too many process improvement initiatives languish and strategic plans miss their mark when teams employ what comes most naturally, a truncated what we might call “pD” approach instead of the methodical, scientific PDCA way. When the “pD” approach is employed, the lowercase “p” represents a collective reluctance or failure to:

  • perform a sufficient current state analysis
  • adequately quantify the performance gap
  • clearly articulate a problem statement, and
  • establish metrics for performance tracking

Take this “pD” shortcut and you soon find yourself on the road to nowhere. (Although perhaps the “pD” journey is more like a roundabout to nowhere than a road to nowhere). A “pD” initiative concludes at “D” because, having bypassed the PLAN phase, there are no baseline metrics against which to CHECK the performance of our improvements (or subsequently ACT accordingly). Software vendors dearly love “pD” practitioners who would opt for a pre-determined automation solution to a poorly understood and vaguely articulated problem. “pD” organizations doom themselves to unwittingly exacerbate their problems via a collective rush to solutions, well-intended though they may be.

At the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, where I work, our focus is on delivering energy efficiency savings based upon scientific, evidence-based PDCA rigor. My team focuses on delivering measurable improvements for our key administrative and support processes. When introducing internal process improvement teams to PDCA, I often compare our PDCA approach to home energy audits. A typical audit follows this  cycle:

PLAN: Conduct a thorough inspection and evaluation of all systems in the home. Gather current state data to quantify the energy efficiency performance gap and establish target improvement metrics. Articulate a clear problem statement to the homeowner.

DO: Recommend (and implement) only those improvements with the most bang for the buck. The objective is not to tear down and build a new house, even though we intrinsically “know” it would be more efficient than the current structure. New windows might not make the cut here either – caulking and gap filling would be the smarter approach. Install the improvements as soon as possible after the PLAN phase is complete – time is the enemy of interest and impetus.

CHECK: In order to know that the efficiency measures are having their desired impact, we take measurements. Have we met or exceeded the target improvement goals established in the PLAN phase? Have we eliminated the performance gap that we carefully quantified in the PLAN phase? If we haven’t, then we…

ACT: We are passionate about energy efficiency and we take it personally when our implemented measures fail to deliver the anticipated savings. So, what do we do? Say, “oh well, better luck next time?” Heck, no. We get in there and do some more analysis. We must have missed something the first time. We re-check our calculations and re-think our assumptions. We might even test alternate measures.

By following this cycle in our external projects, we ensure that our methods are evidence-based. We aim to have all of our efficiency savings claims verified to the max. How would we know that we solved an energy efficiency problem if we couldn’t compare post-implementation performance data to a pre-implementation baseline? The same should go for our internal projects. But with these, some of our more “action-oriented” teams can easily stray towards a “pD” approach as a “time-saver”. Often just reminding these folks of our home energy audit PDCA discipline is enough to help them steer clear of that road to nowhere.

Over the years I may have facilitated a team or two that was so “pD”-oriented that all the coaching I could muster was not going to be enough to coax them off of that roundabout. Those individuals reminded me of Clark Griswold, unsuccessfully navigating a London roundabout in the movie European Vacation – “Look, kids! There’s Big Ben! There’s Parliament!” – again and again. It is important, even when dealing with Team Griswold, to stay committed to methodology and to strongly advise against “pD” exceptions. Building real PDCA, lean-based systems of continuous improvement takes a long, committed, collaborative effort to steer the organization…

Away from improvement initiatives focused on re-tooling internal systems and functions … Toward initiatives focusing on understanding and maximizing customer value.

Away from initiatives based on anecdotal perceptions of problems … Toward initiatives based on clearly articulated problem statements, quantified performance gaps, and metrics for tracking the impact of improvement efforts.

Away from initiatives that are drawn-out, wholesale “reengineering” effortsToward initiatives that target only those opportunities that make a meaningful difference in three months or less.

Away from initiatives with pre-defined solutions imposed upon process owners … Toward initiatives in which process owners learn how to articulate problems, investigate root causes, test and implement their own solutions, track their impact, and make adjustments accordingly.

True PDCA is not a discipline unique to lean or whose application is limited strictly to manufacturing, the “for profit” world, “repeatable” processes, “transactional” processes, or to those organizational cultures that already boast a strong PDCA predisposition. It’s for any organization that is willing to shun shortcuts and keep driving on the evidence-based road to continuous improvement.

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily represent the views or policies of The Lean Enterprise Institute.
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