Continuous Improvement Is a System

However we organize process improvement personnel, or to what continuous improvement method we subscribe, the mechanism by which we achieve continuous improvement is a system.

By ALAN NICOL, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutions LLC

Alan Nicol, Executive Member, AlanNicolSolutionsA dictionary definition of a system reads something like this: a set of connected things working together as a mechanism or an interconnected network. Based on that, our process improvement and business improvement prowess is the outcome of a system. Personnel, software, tools, equipment, networks, information databases, metrics, and leaders all coordinate and cooperate in order to make improvement happen.

As with any system we have within our business, we must do periodic maintenance and updates to keep that system fresh and capable of meeting our needs. When was the last time you or your business leaders sat back and assessed your continuous improvement system? What plans or actions do you have to keep it updated and performing superbly?

Take a step back this week and examine your improvement system both objectively and with some personification. After all, your system is more than just equipment and assets; it’s primarily made of people.

For an objective look at your improvement system, consider it from an information perspective, primarily. What I mean is, consider the flow and utilization of information as a means of assessing how well your system works.

Your continuous improvement system operates almost completely in a realm of information. It is information that signals where the opportunities to improve exist. Information is the material that is examined and assessed to determine what the problem is, how big it is, and what the root cause of it is. Information is how personnel communicate possible solutions, and generally, information is the first thing that must change in order to affect a change in performance.

So, sit back and assess the flow of information through your system to decide if it needs a boost in some way. Here are some examinations you might make to get your assessment started:

  1. Does your system have access to information it needs?
  2. Does your system have a place to put information it gathers?
  3. Is information repeatedly re-created, or is information discovered once and organized for repeated use?
  4. Does your system effectively communicate its status to the rest of the organization?
  5. Do all of the elements in your system cooperate effectively, or is there internal struggle between people, equipment, software, or between people and software, etc.?
  6. Do the tools effectively interrogate data, or do your people effectively use the tools, or do your people continuously struggle to find or create tools they need?
  7. Are the tools, equipment, subsystems, or other elements of your system used, or are they collecting dust?
  8. Is your system paying for itself?

The above questions are just a starting place for examining your system. Notice that the questions are very objective, meaning they examine the system as if it was a machine. It is good to do this because it tricks us into ignoring all of the ways that we might rationalize the behavior or performance of the system.

When we look at it like a machine we can separate ourselves, to some degree, from our feelings about the machine, and simply examine it factually. Then we can digest our clinical observations and begin to propose or determine some actions to improve the system.

When we have completed our objective assessment, I strongly recommend a more personified perspective be taken. Your continuous improvement system is not actually a machine. It is constructed primarily of people who cooperate and coordinate to make changes in process or practices.

Regardless of how professionally people behave, they still have needs, desires, motives, and emotions. Those things definitely play a part in determining a person’s performance, and they play a part in team performance. I won’t say that we should treat our system like a person, but I will suggest that we examine it like a living organism.

Pretend that your system is a creature. Examine whether or not that creature is healthy and if it has all of the things it needs to be healthy. Here are some examinations to get you started:

  1. Is your organism weak, or is it strong?
  2. Is it bold, or browbeaten?
  3. Is it confident and self-motivated, or is it timid and demanding of extra guidance and instruction?
  4. Does it fit in with all of the other organisms, or is it a misfit (for example, sometimes dedicated process improvement functions will develop an elitist attitude that turns off all of the people they are chartered to help)?
  5. Is your organism trapped, or does it have room to grow or evolve?
  6. Is it healthy, or is it diseased (does it work effectively, or do attitudes and moods hamper performance or cause a breakdown in teamwork)?
  7. Is it well fed, or is it starving?

Again, the above examination points are just a few starters to prime the thought process. Many times, the objective elements for a team or a function might be very well maintained and polished, but the system-organism flounders because the personal elements are not in place to produce a healthy, highly performing, motivated, team of people.

As you perform your objective and your personified assessments, do not forget to apply your improvement methodology to your findings. For example, should we discover that our analysis software tools are underutilized; we must not jump to the action of shopping for upgrades to our software tools. Instead, we must seek the root cause of the underutilization.

It may be that our software tools are under-used because people are not trained properly in their use. Alternatively, it may be that the bulk of the issues to be solved do not require sophisticated analyses to assess and improve. Be sure to understand the why of the issues before taking actions.

Consider the opportunities to improve your process improvement system and begin by acting on those that are likely to produce the greatest performance enhancement or system development for the least cost and effort. In my experience, the observations out of the personified examination are the ones most likely to make the biggest difference for the least investment. It’s a good reason to be sure to do the “touchy-feely” examination.

It can be easy to overlook your continuous improvement system while looking for ways to improve your business. Don’t. Take the time to assess if the mechanism responsible for improving your business efficiency is itself performing effectively, or if it needs a tune up.

Go ahead. Give your system a solid personal exam. Decide if it needs a little treatment and take care of the biggest opportunities first. You will see that it can be a relatively easy thing to do and the actions to improve it might also be surprisingly simple.

Stay wise, friends.

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