Probing the Limits: The Wrong Road Toward Improvement

December 1, 2004
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Get to the actual root cause of problems to affect improvements in people and processes.

Well-intentioned efforts to improve processes and products often go down the road of waste and counter productivity. By avoiding some common mistakes, ineffective improvement efforts can be stopped before they go too far. Because quality professionals are "continual improvers" by trade, they need to be particularly attentive to these issues.

The most common large-scale mistake is framing the problem in a manner that assumes that the status quo is optimal and cannot be improved. For example, if marketing wants a new product sooner than originally planned, one might ask, "How many engineers need to be added to the project to accelerate the development schedule?" This question makes an underlying assumption that the engineers and engineering process are working at an optimal level. This is probably a bad assumption. In fact, the Software Engineering Institute states that on a scale of 1 to 5, 40% of American software-development teams work at Level 1, the "chaos" process level.

An engineering manager may, instead of adding more people to the development team, choose another option if he asked, "What can be done to our chaotic development process to get this product to market faster?" Quality-based process improvement is probably a much cheaper and more effective solution.

This mistake is often made on decisions to outsource. While some decisions to outsource are good overall business decisions, many other outsourcing decisions assume that the existing process and costs are optimal, and cheaper options should be pursued. Many companies would be well served by reframing the outsourcing question as, "What fundamental process changes could we make to produce high-quality products cheaper than the outsourcing bid?" Some companies have gone down the wrong outsourcing path to "continually improve costs" by assuming they can't improve enough to compete. Any company that feels they don't have potential to improve should do a quick self-assessment using the Baldrige criteria. It is guaranteed to be an eye-opening experience.

Not understanding the real root cause to problems is another major reason continual improvement projects go down the wrong path. Ironically, the best managers are the ones who first admit that their operation is full of problems. It's the weak and lazy managers that practice the "ignorance is bliss" approach in not actively looking for and investigating problems. These weak managers are the first to go down the wrong path to needlessly add people and outsource when good process improvement would have yielded better results. Spending money and handing over chunks of the business to outsourcers is just a whole lot easier for some managers than digging for the root cause, but this may not be the best business strategy.

Not fully understanding problems often leads to another wrong path of selecting a more complex solution than needed. Buying software packages and thinking they will solve process or

people problems is a good example. Common statements that indicate that looking at software to handle problems that go beyond its capability include, "With new enterprise resource planning software, we would not have part shortages any more," or, "I saw a great presentation on how this new software will solve our revision control issues." In many cases, where hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on software implementations, the company may find the situation is just as bad as before because the software did not solve the actual underlying process control issues.

In addition to being expensive, when process improvement goes down the wrong path, it makes it harder for quality professionals to get support for future right-path, root-cause improvement projects. Hopefully, these warning signs will help steer your company away from some of these wrong paths to continual improvement. Send me an e-mail and let me know what you have experienced.

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Charles J. Hellier has been active in the technology of nondestructive testing and related quality and inspection fields since 1957. Here he talks with Quality's managing editor, Michelle Bangert, about the importance of training.
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