How Do You Prove You're Improving? by Kevin McManus
In many organizations, certain internal or external customers expect you to be able to prove that you are following a continuous improvement process. For example, a key customer you provide products or services to may want evidence that improvement is happening on a consistent basis. Similarly, an external auditing group, such as the Food and Drug Administration or a state agency may have similar requirements. How can you prove to others that you are getting better each day?
Fortunately, the same types of tools and documentation that can help you answer this question are used to drive a successful continuous improvement effort. Below are some of the more commonly used tools for this purpose, along with a brief explanation of how they are designed and utilized:
Project Matrix with % Complete Column – Sustained improvement over time cannot happen without fundamental systems change. A project matrix defines what systems changes you have in the works, which ones have been considered for implementation and dropped, and which ones are planned for the future. In addition to listing the projects themselves, a basic project matrix identifies when the improvement was suggested, when it is scheduled for implementation, what its priority is relative to other projects, and who is responsible for its development.
‘Best practice' project matrices also include a ‘% Complete' and a ‘Next Steps' column to reflect current status. Comparing updated printouts of this tool in regular project review meetings should allow you to demonstrate progress on a given project and gives you evidence of the improvements that have been made over time.
Annotated Trend Lines – True improvement cannot be demonstrated without measuring. Trend lines serve as the primary tool for demonstrating measurable improvement over time. By linking improvements that have been made (completed projects or daily process improvements) to a given trend line, you should be able to clearly demonstrate the number of improvements that have been made to a given process and the impact that these improvements have had.
Formal process description or diagram – Process improvement is a process in itself. One of the first steps in any formal improvement process involves defining the process. Best practice improvement efforts have a defined, multi-step improvement process (normally a flow chart) and a description of the various support requirements, measures, and roles that are needed to effectively support the effort on an ongoing basis.
Team minutes and monthly reports – Regardless of their local names, most organizations use three types of teams to drive their improvement efforts – focus teams (such as a safety or recognition committees), process or work teams, and project teams. Focus teams and project teams in particular essentially have to keep minutes to allow them to keep track of what they do from one meeting to the next. Work (process) teams tend to use weekly or monthly reports to show their accomplishments and needs. Both forms of documentation should allow you to prove your are improving over time if a curious person compares their contents from one period of time to the next.
SnapCharTs – SnapCharTs provide evidence of both improvement effort depth and the degree to which the formal improvement process has been applied to a given problem. Improvement depth is reflected in the degree to which events and conditions have been defined for a given incident (problem) that is being investigated (analyzed) for improvement. If you create SnapCharTs as a matter of course as part of your improvement process, being able to produce a variety of different charts should help convince others that you attempting to improve your processes in a lot of different ways. Note: SnapChart is a registered trademark of the TapRooT root cause analysis process.
Training curriculums and rosters – In order to grow and improve your improvement process over time, you need to train people to use the process and the tools that are a part of it. The training curriculum should indicate who gets trained in what, and when such training is planned for delivery. Training rosters provide evidence that the training actually occurred and also shows who was in attendance. Best practice organizations provide a lot of training in continuous improvement to all of their people – these two forms of documentation provide proof of such efforts.
Job Descriptions – A well-designed job description reflects the amount of time each position is expected to devote to improvement efforts, and in particular, projects. The job description is also the place where the linkage between performance results and each job function is defined. Unfortunately, many continuous improvement initiatives fail because companies fail to (1) build these two components into their job descriptions for all employees and (2) use these allocations to budget time for project work and team activities.
Cross-functional project teams – In fledging improvement focused companies, project team involvement tends to be dominated by management and office personnel, primarily because (1) it is easier to free these people up from their ‘normal' jobs and (2) they are perceived to not require as much training in order to function effectively in such roles. Best practice organizations however involve a high percentage of their people in their project team efforts. They recognize that by mixing people together with different skills and work experiences, the quality of their projects and project development efforts will be higher. They also don't make the mistake of assuming that having a college degree equates to having the ability to effectively use problem solving / process improvement tools.
Matrix of Defined Processes – All too many organizations spend time and money at work each day without even defining what all of their key processes are. They often define their front line processes, but they fail to define each key process that is executed on a regular basis. Best practice companies use a process definition matrix to define each of their key processes at all levels in their organization. In addition to listing each key process, such a matrix defines the process's key customers, their requirements, and the measures for gauging how well these requirements are being met.
Employees can talk continuous improvement – Documentation may provide evidence of improvement over time, but the key proof that improvement is occurring cannot be detected without talking to a diverse mix of employees. If your various continuous improvement systems are functioning like they need to be, a high percentage of your people should be able to tell stories about improvements they have helped put in place and describe the measures they use each day to monitor and improvement performance.
Cycles of Improvement – In organizations where continuous improvement is alive and well, each process owner can provide examples of several improvements that have been made to their key processes. At a minimum, the organization should be able to produce a list of key improvements that they have made each year. The better ones can show how each of their key processes has undergone numerous cycles of improvement over time (at least one to three key changes per year for three to five years).
Evidence of improved performance results in several key areas – It is not uncommon to find companies where safety or quality receive more emphasis than other performance areas, such as people development or cost effectiveness. High performance organizations however regularly trend and seek to improve their results in all key areas – safety, quality, people, and cost.
A well-rounded, well-designed continuous improvement process will be able to produce documentation relative to all of the above tools. How well did you do? How many of these components are part of your existing continuous improvement effort? Can you prove you are improving?
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