Most organizations pursuing implementation of continuous improvement (CI) will follow some variant of the Deming Cycle for their CI model:
Plan ➔ Do ➔ Check ➔ Act
- Plan – Identify a problem or opportunity and determine how to approach it
- Do – Take action to address the opportunity, generally on a small scale or pilot effort
- Check – Monitor the results of the action—with data—to assess impact.
- Act – If the change was successful, systematize or expand it. If it was not successful, continue the cycle to pursue an alternate path.
Organizations may tweak the model to make it most effective for their efforts, for example:
- Six Sigma expands the model: Define ➔ Measure ➔ Analyze ➔ Improve ➔ Control
- GE uses Work-Out: Design and Prep ➔ Conduct an Event ➔ Implement Decisions
These continuous improvement models have much in common. Whatever your approach, you can likely troubleshoot issues by looking at potential failures at each point of the Deming Cycle.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
Continuous improvement seems like a straightforward concept; just make things better—little by little—constantly. However, an organization can make numerous small improvements without creating value if these efforts are not aligned with the business' overall strategy. Rather than jumping into random quality circles or other improvement efforts scattered across the organization, create a plan. Your OpEx strategy and continuous improvement needs to focus on targeted deliverables and have structured plans. An example of a structured plan would be to:
- Align the OpEx strategy with organizational and operational strategies.
- Define the problem to be addressed, with a distinct scope and charter
- Articulate SMART goals.
- Identify resources needed and assure availability.
- Communicate with and guarantee commitment of all stakeholders.
- Ensure performance feedback is in place.
“When all is said and done, more is said than done.”
The doing phase can have several problems. When planning paralysis sets in, actors aren’t ready to move from planning to action. In some cases, this results from seeking perfection. However, the cyclical nature of continuous improvement means plans don’t have to be perfect from the start. No one has to go for the “big win” immediately, but rather work toward continuous improvements that add up quickly. The “do” phase harnesses creativity and provides the opportunity to test multiple ideas, funneling toward the best long-term solutions.
Other “doing” issues include having an unclear understanding of what to do or inadequate skills to execute plans. Address these “doing” issues with concrete actions, such as:
- Communicating the plan.
- Adequately equipping human resources with appropriate training, preferably just-in-time, to do the planned work.
- Providing training, mentoring and other support for building decision-making skills.
- Empowering teams to take appropriate actions without having leadership or staff resources signing off on every detail.
- Fostering a learning-based culture, where even failures are seen as valuable information gains.
- Creating or acquiring standard tracking tools for project execution, defining “Who will do what by when.”
“Without feedback, no improvement is possible.”
Improvement efforts are simply nice things to do unless they can be assessed rationally to determine their impact. This checking phase of the PDCA Deming cycle incorporates a verification scheme to see if and how well planned and executed actions move toward desired outcomes. Probably the largest issue here is lack of observable, verifiable measurement. The steps of this phase are:
- Identify, in advance, the measurements that must be made during the “do” phase and criteria for judging success.
- Provide “doers” basic quality tools and other resources to help with data analyses.
- Answer the question: Did it work?
- Enlist statistical support, if needed, to validate degree of correlation to select the best choice from the list of viable options.
“The job isn’t finished until the paperwork is done.”
The PDC portion of the CI model verifies that a suggested improvement adds value. However, if the “act” phase isn’t done well, the planned change is not systematized and the process will likely shift back to the same old way of doing things. Counter this major problem by:
- Creating standard practices for documenting change, communicating, providing training, and verifying performance at a fixed interval after change implementation.
- Reinforcing not only heroic crisis-fighting and breakthrough discoveries, but also the everyday work of standardizing and systematizing changes.
- Celebrating the completion of the improvement after the “act” phase rather than “do” or “check.”
- Documenting the learnings of what did and didn’t work to feed into the next cycle.
- Utilizing a review process to look for ways to leverage actions beyond the initial scope.
After the first success in the PDCA process, some teams stop. However, they’re likely missing out on other wins from their CI model that build on the work completed. To counter this outcome, it's important to:
- Debrief the team to understand what went well, what didn’t go well, and what other opportunities remain.
- Utilize an Agile approach to capture a running list of related problems and opportunities as feed for the next plan part of the cycle.
- Leverage the team’s skills, motivation, and learnings to attack the next logical issue.
We have extensive experience working with organizations on these and other issues with their continuous improvement models and implementation. Get in touch with EON for help.