There are very few people in business who would argue with the value of continual improvement. Whether following the principles of lean or not, leaders regularly talk about the importance of improving processes, products, and services. Why, then, are some organizations significantly better at driving and sustaining continual improvement than others?
It Takes More than Logic
Establishing a culture of improvement should be as simple as encouraging people to look for better ways of doing work. This is, after all, one area where common sense should prevail and everybody should be aligned, right? Well . . . not really. Appealing to common sense and logic by discussing issues like competitive position, rising costs, or falling revenues will only get you so far in sparking an ongoing improvement effort. Even establishing programs that reward and recognize people for implementing improvements seldom drives the type of behavior that is needed to sustain the change.
Changing a culture to one where improvement happens on a continual basis requires more than appealing to logic because it tends to run counter to common sense – at least when compared to the way most businesses operate. There are natural organizational and psychological barriers that interfere with the ability to improve on a continual basis. One of the most significant barriers is related to the way people think and approach work and, without a concerted effort to shift thinking toward a mindset of continual learning, efforts to improve will likely be fragmented, discontinuous, and difficult to sustain.
A shift in thinking means getting everyone – from the CEO to the shop floor – to approach everything they do in terms of scientific method. Most people know about scientific method but, for a variety of reasons, don’t consider applying it outside of the laboratory. Creating an improvement-focused culture, however, requires learning; and learning results from continually comparing results to expectations – the basis of scientific method. The vehicle for this is the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, and success results from reprogramming people to apply PDSA-thinking in everything they do.
Scientific Method – A Quick Review
As shown in the figure below, scientific method refers to the process of testing an idea – or hypothesis – to determine whether or not it appears to work as intended. It begins with consciously considering the hypothesis, conducting one or more tests to prove the validity of the hypothesis, studying the results of the test, and accepting, rejecting, or adjusting the hypothesis as a result. In the end, the cycle drives learning by helping people gain improve their understanding regarding the reasons why a hypothesis is true or not.
Applying the PDSA cycle in a business environment involves consciously understanding that a specific action, decision, process, or standard is intended to achieve a specific outcome. Testing the hypothesis could be done off-line in a limited area of work, or in the normal course of business, but the key is to always compare outcomes to actions and, as a result, learn what needs to change and why.
Although the concept appears simple, most people don’t generally think or act in terms of the PDSA cycle. We tend to make a decision or document a process and move on; rarely taking the time to look back and learn whether the results matched expectations. Often, the only time we do look back and make adjustments is when a problem occurs that is significant enough to warrant attention. Since we don’t normally think scientifically, however, and we’re not always looking for the gaps, we miss the small issues that prove the hypothesis – the decision, action, or process – is incorrect. And often, the significant issues start off as small ones that, because we don’t notice or worry about them, grow into big problems.
The organizations that are able to successfully change the way people think understand that it cannot happen through occasional coaching or random interactions. These organizations have, for instance, a new employee orientation and follow-up process that is intensive – especially for leadership positions – and includes much more than showing the new person where the lunchroom is or how to enroll for insurance. It incorporates a heavy emphasis on developing problem-solving capabilities and adjusting the way the person thinks. The more pervasive PDSA thinking is throughout the organization, the easier it is to adapt the new person’s mental models because, in addition to formal coaching, learning happens informally through observation and interactions with others. In those organizations where thinking is not generally guided by scientific method, however, transformation requires a concerted and deliberate effort of coaching and developing key leaders. In turn, these leaders coach and develop others, eventually changing the organization’s mindset.
The first step is to understand that transformation requires more than desire and support to be successful. It is a leadership issue that requires commitment, involvement, and an openness to change the way the organization thinks and learns. Relying solely on logic and common sense to drive the change, on the other hand, will likely result result in little more than frustration, disappointment, and a long wait.