There have been some recent posts about the value of small improvements. The cumulative impact of having a lot of people making fractional improvements that move towards the ideal state has been well described.  Improvement I would like to offer some thoughts about how to structure small rapid improvements for yourself and your team.

First, notice the word “structure” in the last sentence. This isn’t about trying a bunch of stuff.  Idea programs offer a decent start, but having structure increases the potential for the improvements to be rapid.  Therefore this process sticks with the rule “structure every activity.”

What can be done now/soon to move closer to the ideal state?

This is the question to trigger the rapid improvement cycle.  Constraining the time creates focus.  Something that can be done now/soon causes people to look at what is in their circle of control rather than large, complex challenges.  It makes it OK for the improvement to be simple rather than the major breakthrough that we have become conditioned to expect.  In addition, the question implies that the ideal state (or target condition) is understood.  Take some time to be sure that there is understanding of the ideal state.  An ideal state of “zero defects to the customer” will generate different improvements than “quality right first time at each step of the process.”

What are the steps of small rapid improvement?

No surprise, the steps follow Plan-Do-Check-Act.  The first step is identify the gap between the current state and the ideal state. Gaps can be sourced from waste walks, abnormalities spotted in gemba walks, audits, direct observation of processes that identify opportunities to simplify flow, clarify connections, or better structure activities.  Sort the observations into two groups, those that can be acted on by the team and those that may need more support. Select opportunities based on impact and ability to take action soon.

The next step is to identify the root cause of the gap.  5 Why’s is a good tool to use for this.  Once the root cause has been agreed upon, it is a good idea to validate the root cause with some direct observation.

If I do __(x)___, I expect to get __(y)__. (Hypothesis)

We usually skip this step.  Or we dilute it to “if I do something, it will make it better”.  The third step of the process is the hypothesis. This structure causes us to understand the current gap in measurable observable terms.  It requires us to observe the root cause and consider the result of eliminating the cause. The hypothesis focuses our efforts on taking one action (now/soon) and defining what we expect to get in return. It is second grade science and it works.

Once a hypothesis is defined, developing a quick, inexpensive way to test the hypothesis is next. Be creative and simple.  Use tape or cardboard rather than metal and welding. Be sure the test fairly represents your proposed countermeasure while sticking with swift and cheap.

If the action delivers the expected result, move to implementation.  If not, go back and examine your understanding of current state. Usually the gap can be found there.

What are success criteria for small, rapid improvement?

1.  The team needs to understand the process and PDCA.  In addition they need to have the ability to test their hypothesis and implement the improvement. Without the ability to act on the observed gaps, this will just become a list making exercise and lose credibility quickly.

2.  If improvements impact peers who do the same tasks, a mechanism to reach alignment and understanding of the improvement is needed.

3. Gaps and experiments need to be validated with direct observation.

4. The people who must live with the problem and the solution must participate.

5.  Identify a template or reporting structure to keep the team on track.  A3 reports and simple problem solving grids work if used while working the process rather than extra work to do afterwards.

6.  Identify who the coach is.  The coach keeps the process in place (rather than filling in the blanks afterwards) and asks questions to develop the team’s skills to improve rapidly.

Now, stop reading and go solve some problems.