I think it’s generally well understood that process improvement should first start by understanding the current state before designing the future state.  It’s also somewhat understood that’s it’s important to understand current state for effective problem solving.  It is less understood that innovation often actually starts with understanding the current state.

The following is the 1st of a 3 part series examing the importance of understanding the current state for process design, problem solving and innovation.  The focus this week is on process design.  Next week we will focus on problem solving, and finally the week after that we’ll focus on innovation.  In each instance, real life examples are provided to illustrate practical application

It’s relatively easy to understand why it’s important to understand the current state before designing the future state.  Taking a clean sheet of paper to design the future without understanding current state is inefficient, ineffective, and typically costly.  It simply just doesn’t make any sense, particularly common sense.  Some more obvious reasons include:

  • You can’t assess if the future state is an improvement (resources, cycle time, quality, etc.) if you don’t first understand the performance characteristics of the current state.
  • How would you know that you didn’t replicate what wasn’t working well?
  • How do you know that you captured the good process practices?  We don’t do everything poorly
  • Where the waste and what are the major problems?
  • How do know the impact of the changes that were made?
  • How do you stimulate possibilities without recognizing the gaps?

However, there are a few reasons that are not so clearly recognized:

  • It’s unreasonable, or at least difficult, to expect that you will focus on common goals without first having a common understanding of the current state.  Have you ever tried to get high agreement on the “plan forward’ when everybody is starting in a different place.  We have to all start in the same place if there is going to be any chance of getting to the same place.
  • Understanding the current state can take you beyond the future state—it can stimulate the ideal state.  Likely one of the least applied practices when redesigning a process is a focus on ideal state.  We often simply look to improve the current state and develop a new future state.  I’m not suggesting that they you can achieve ideal, it doesn’t happen often.  However, what does happen when focusing on an ideal state is that you will make step gains and not just incremental gains.  I was worked with a factory that produced syringes.  The needle in the syringe was manufactured on one side of the plant and the injection molding operations far away on the other side of the plant produced the plastic components in the syringe.   These components are then married together in a piece of equipment that automatically assembles and packages syringe.  The future state was to move the injecting molding operation closer to the needle manufacturing.  After careful examination of the current state it was found that the issue with the waste in the process wasn’t generated by the distance between opearations, , the issue was the significant handling.  I won’t go through their efforts but they ultimately designed and implemented a solution where the plastic components are vacuumed immediately from the injection molding equipment and deposited directly in the assembly equipment on the other side of the plant.  Now the handling is totally eliminated—Ideal State.  I experinced one instance where a business process was totally eliminated without any negative impact to the company.  They would have struggled to improve a process that shouldn’t even exist.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to define ideal before designing future.

Next week I’ll focus on the importance of current state for problem solving.  STAY TUNED