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Practicing Improvement! Phase 1: The Assessment Phase – Step 1: Collecting Data

Assessment, Problem Solving, and Implementation

The Steps to Process Improvement

Process Improvement Exercise has three important and necessary phases, 1) The Assessment Phase, 2) Problem Solving Phase, and 3) Implementation Phase. The Assessment phase has two steps, Collecting Data and Analyzing Data. We devote this article to the “Collecting Data” part of the Assessment Phase. The goal of this step is to find the appropriate and useful information to analyze during the next step of the assessment phase. 

Focus on Good Data – Mark Twain made a good point when he said, “The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.” Often we can contaminate good information by adding details fabricated by our own imaginations. Dr. Jerry Westbrook, one of my old mentors said it this way, “The number one enemy of good quality (or making good decisions) is the words “I think” and “I know.”” This is a colorful way of saying, making decisions “off-the-top-of-your-head” or “without data” leads to incorrect and harmful solutions. On the other hand, we also might fail to collect good data by spending our time collecting easy to obtain information that takes us farther away from our goals. This is like, searching for a lost set of car keys at night under a street light because it is easier to see there. Often this happens when we become comfortable with a set of solutions and then try to apply them to every problem. Therefore, we should always collect actual data related to the actual problems and processes we are trying to improve. One should not weigh personal imaginations or political biases higher than factual data.

Develop a Data Collection Plan – Collecting data is the first foundational step to a successful process improvement program. Therefore, it is important to design an information-collecting plan. The plan should answer the key questions of what, where, how, when, and from whom you will gather the information. Each set of questions should also have a “So what” reason. Why are we asking for this information? How does it get us closer to the centralized theme of documenting the issues related to critical processes and systems required for effective and efficient operations?

What data to collect: In the words of Warren G. Bennis (an organizational consultant and author), “There is a profound difference between information and meaning.” However, during this step we are focused only on collecting information. During the next “analysis” step, we will look for the meaning in the data.

What data to collect relates to the why question? Every worthwhile future proposed change will be based on the information we now collect, have a stated goal, and be connected to a picture of “what good looks like.” Although, we may choose improvement candidates based on our experiences with similar operations. More often, we should focus on others with the closest experience with the operations. Here, complaints, observed problems, or baselined metrics drive process improvement candidates. Collect information based on what you are tiring to achieve. Prioritize the candidates by the value the change will add to the organization. The value may be measured by cost savings, revenue generation, and/or other non-monetized improvements.

Mindmap Assessment Phase - Step 1 Collecting DataWhen to, Where is, and Who has the data: Start the process with the leaders and look for any previous findings or observations. Answer the more detailed “where to find the data, who to involve, and when to” questions, after we know the scope of our assessment.

How are we going to collect the data: Information comes from many sources – from conversations with people inside and outside of our organizations, previous studies, records and other written materials, group discussions, surveys, Internet searches, and direct observations. Visual tools like drawings, PowerPoint slides, and pictures act as a catalyst when gathering information by helping us to explain and understand details during interviews with stakeholders. Nevertheless, as Albert Einstein said, “Information is not knowledge.” Knowledge is developed over time and comes from analysis as well as practice (trial and error) and from working with those who know the problems and processes the best (the frontline employees, those using the systems, suppliers, customers, etc.).

To improve, good useable data has to be collected. How can you participate? Keep a look out for ways to improve and be open-minded. As you have ideas, do not jump to conclusions; instead, think in terms of information to collect that will help validate your concerns. Share your observations with those in organization. Participate in data collection and the follow up analysis and problem solving steps. Finally volunteer to help implement well-thought-out solutions. Practice improvement!

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