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Practicing Improvement! Three Phases of Process Improvement

In the words of Dr. Deming, “A bad system will beat a good person every time.”Therefore, we owe it to our customers, teammates, and staff to improve our processes continuously. Think of a Process Improvement Exercise as having three important and necessary phases, 1) The Assessment Phase, 2) Problem Solving Phase, and 3) Implementation Phase.

Assessment, Problem Solving, and Implementation

The Steps to Process Improvement

The Assessment Phase – During the assessment phase, the goal is to find both good processes to highlight and bad processes to improve. One can think of the Assessment Phase as planting red and green flags. The red flags are problems to fix. While the green flags are best practices to share with others. The only goal of this phase is to plant the flags, not solve the problems.

During the first part of an assessment, focus on gathering data. Dr. Jerry Westbrook, One of my old mentors put it this way, “The number one enemy of quality (or making good decisions) are the words “I think” and “I know.”” This is making decisions without data. Therefore, we gather data from a number of sources, such as:

After data gathering comes analysis. The analysis part helps us decide on the flags to bring forward. During the analysis step, we are asking the questions that reveal the truth behind the colors of red, green, or neither. The goal of this step is to select candidates for improvement or to share with others. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors, and I shall adopt new views so fast as they appear to be true views.” 

The Problem Solving Phase – The goal of the problem-solving phase is to find, not implement the most valuable solutions. Therefore, we start by looking for the biggest-bang-for-the-buck. Where can we make the biggest impact with the lease disruption and expense? We prioritize the red-flagged candidates with that in mind.

Next, when solving the highest priority problems, one should never just jump to a solution without analyzing the problem. Nor should one be satisfied with solving symptoms without understanding the causes. In the words of Anthony J. D’Angelo, “When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves.”

The Implementation Phase – Every solution brings with it a change but no company can afford to implement every desired change at one time. Therefore, as during the Problem Solving Phase, we also have to prioritize the solutions we decide to implement.

The number one tool for implementing a change is Project Management. However, not every change requires a complicated project. Only larger changes require the more rigorous Project Management tools and efforts. Nevertheless, we can simplify every implementation of a solution by thinking in terms of four project management phases:

  1. Conceptual Design Phase – Answer the question, “What does good look like?”
  2. Planning Phase – Answer the questions related to “How are we going to reach that picture of good?”
  3. Implementation Phase – Is the doing of the work, which is required to make the plan happen.
  4. Transition Phase – Is where we transfer the fruits of the project teams’ labor to the people who will operate the improved processes/systems.

To improve, each phase is required. How can you participate? Think in terms the three phases of process improvement. First, assess problems and find examples of excellence. Share your observations with those in your organization and those on Process Improvement teams. Next, participate in problem solving and finally volunteer to help implement well-thought-out solutions. Start practicing improvement in your organization!

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