Tag Archives: Process improvement

5s at NASA

NASA did some amazing things culminating with landing on Moon. Much of what they did was doing many small things very well. They used 5s, checklists, gemba thinking, usability, simplicity, testing out on a small scale and much more.

Here are a few photos from the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington DC. I also have some nicer NASA 5s photos from the new Annex near Dulles Airport, but, ironically, I can’t find them.

photo of container labeled with many compartments for NASA

These kits were used by NASA astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Obviously NASA had to have everything that might be needed where it was needed (picking up something from the supply closet in building 2 wasn’t an option).

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Introductory Videos on Using Design of Experiments to Improve Results

The video shows Stu Hunter discussing design of experiments in 1966. It might be a bit slow going at first but the full set of videos really does give you a quick overview of the many important aspects of design of experiments including factorial designed experiments, fractional factorial design, blocking and response surface design. It really is quite good, if you find the start too slow for you skip down to the second video and watch it.

My guess is, for those unfamiliar with even the most cursory understanding of design of experiments, the discussion may start moving faster than you can absorb the information. One of the great things about video is you can just pause and give yourself a chance to catch up or repeat a part that you didn’t quite understand. You can also take a look at articles on design of experiments.

I believe design of experiments is an extremely powerful methodology of improvement that is greatly underutilized. Six sigma is the only management improvement program that emphasizes factorial designed experiments.

Related: One factor at a time (OFAT) Versus Factorial DesignsThe purpose of Factorial Designed Experiments

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Richard Feynman Explains the PDSA Cycle

Ok, really Richard Feynman Explains the scientific method. But his thoughts make the similarity between the PDSA cycle and the scientific method obvious.

1) Plan, hypothesis.
You make a guess about a theory (in using the PDSA cycle this step is often missed, while in the scientific method this is of the highest priority). You make a prediction based on that theory.

2) Do the experiment

3) Study the results

If the results disprove the theory you were wrong. If they results don’t disprove the theory you may have a useful theory (it can also be that your theory is still wrong, but this experiment happened not to provide results that disprove it).

Step 4, Act, only exists for PDSA. In science the aim is to learn and confirm laws. While the PDSA cycle has an aim to learn and adopt methods that achieve the desired results.

Richard Feynman: “If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong, in that simple statement is the key to science, it doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t make a difference how smart you are (who made the guess), or what his name is, if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”

Actually far to often “PDSA” fails to adopt this understanding. Instead it become PA: no study of the results, just implement and we all already agree it is going to work so don’t bother wasting time testing that it actually does. Some organization do remember to study results of the pilot experiments but then forget to study the results when the new ideas are adopted on a broader scale.

Related: Does the Data Deluge Make the Scientific Method Obsolete?Video of Young Richard Feynman Talking About Scientific ThinkingHow to Use of the PDSA Improvement Cycle Most EffectivelyUsing Design of Experiments

Management Blog Posts From November 2006

I have selected a few great posts from the Curious Cat Management Blog back in November 2006.

  • What Could we do Better? – There are many important ideas to improve management. This is one of the most important tips to aid improvement that I know of: it is easy to do, brings huge benefits and most organizations fail to do it. Ask your customers: “What one thing could we do to improve?”
  • Ackoff’s F-laws: Common Sins of Management presents 13 common sins of management, such as: Managers who don’t know how to measure what they want settle for wanting what they can measure
  • Common Cause Variation – “Every system has variation. Common cause variation is the variation due to the current system. Dr. Deming increased his estimate of variation due to the system (common cause variation) to 97% (earlier in his life he cited figures as low as 80%). Special cause variation is that due to some special (not part of the system) cause.”
  • Sub-Optimize by Interrupting Knowledge Workers – “The general consensus is that the loss from interrupting [software] developers is much greater than for interrupting most other forms of work and therefor a great deal of effort is placed on improving the system to allow developers to focus.”
  • Amazon Innovation – “I believe Amazon uses technology very well. They have done many innovative things. They have been less successful at turning their technology into big profits. But I continue to believe they have a good shot at doing so going forward (and their core business is doing very well I think).” [Amazon announced great sales numbers today, continuing their long term tread. They are also continuing to be very slow to grow profits (CEO, Jeff Bezos remains willing to challenge common practices – such as his willingness to build business and sacrifice current profits)].

Selling Quality Improvement

In this month’s ASQ influential quality voices post, Paul Borawski asks How Do You “Sell” Quality?

I am amazed how difficult it is to sell quality improvement. I look at organizations I interact with and easily see systemic failures due to faults that can be corrected by adopting management improvement strategies that are decades old. Yet executives resist improving. The desire to retain the comforting embrace of existing practices is amazingly strong.

What sells to executives are usually ideas that require little change in thinking or practice but promise to eliminate current problems. What Dr. Deming called “instant pudding” solutions sell well. They are what executives have historically bought, and they don’t work. I can’t actually understand how people continue to be sold such magic solutions but they do.

If you want to enable effective management improvement, as I do, you need to both have buyers for what you offer and offer something that works. Honestly I am not much of a salesperson. Based on what I see executives buy the sale should be packaged in a way that minimize any effort on the executive’s part. However, that doesn’t interest me because it nearly always leads to failed improvement efforts. For years (decades?) Dilbert has provided a humorous view on the continuing tragedy of these efforts.

Another sales option is look for desperate executives that have already tried taking the easy way out 5 or 6 or 7 times and are still in desperate for improvement. Once they can’t see any options offering simple solutions they may be willing to work at a solution.

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Keys to the Effective Use of the PDSA Improvement Cycle

The PDSA improvement cycle was created by Walter Shewhart where Dr. Deming learned about it. An improvement process is now part of many management improvement methods (A3 for lean manufacturing, DMAIC for six sigma and many other modifications). They are fairly similar in many ways. The PDSA cycle (Plan, Do, Study, Act) has a few key pieces that are either absent in most others processes of greatly de-emphasized which is why I prefer it (A3 is my second favorite).

The PDSA cycle is a learning cycle based on experiments. When using the PDSA cycle, it is important to predict the results. This is important for several reasons but most notably due to an understanding of the theory of knowledge. We will learn much more if we write down our prediction. Otherwise we often just think (after the fact); yeah that is pretty much what I expected (even if it wasn’t). Also we often fail to think specifically enough at the start to even have a prediction. Forcing yourself to make a prediction gets you to think more carefully up front and can help you set better experiments.

PDSA Improvement cycle graphic

PDSA Improvement cycle graphic from my book – Management Matters

An organization using PDSA well will turn the PDSA cycle several times on any topic and do so quickly. In a 3 month period turning it 5 times might be good. Often those organizations that struggle will only turn it once (if they are lucky and even reach the study stage). The biggest reason for effective PDSA cycles taking a bit longer is wanting more data than 2 weeks provides. Still it is better to turn it several times will less data – allowing yourself to learn and adjust than taking one long turn.

The plan stage may well take 80% (or even more) of the effort on the first turn of the PDSA cycle in a new series. The do stage may well take 80% of of the time (when you look at the whole process, multiple turns through the PDSA cycle) – it usually doesn’t take much effort (to just collect a bit of extra data) but it may take time for that data to be ready to collect. In the 2nd, 3rd… turns of the PDSA cycle the Plan stage often takes very little time. Basically you are just adjusting a bit from the first time and then moving forward to gather more data. Occasionally you may learn you missed some very important ideas up front; then the plan stage may again take some time (normally if you radically change your plans).

Remember to think of Do as doing-the-experiment. If you are “doing” a bunch of work (not running an experiment and collecting data) that probably isn’t “do” in the PDSA sense.

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Eliminate the Waste of Waiting in Line with Queuing Theory

One thing that frustrates me is how managers fail to adopt proven strategies for decades. One very obvious example is using queuing theory to setup lines.

Yes it may be even better to adopt strategies to eliminate as much waiting in line as possible, but if there is still waiting in line occurring and you are not having one queue served by multiple representatives shame on you and your company.

Related: Customer Focus and Internet Travel SearchYouTube Uses Multivariate Experiment To Improve Sign-ups 15%Making Life Difficult for Customers

Be Thankful for Customer That Are Complaining, They Haven’t Given Up All Hope

I ran across this message and liked it (by wuqi256):

My time spent in a fast food chain (factory worker on weekends and security guard at night, yes really thanks to them, i have great jobs like that) when i was young trying to feed the family and study at the same time was quite useful.

They taught me that “Customers who complain are the best customers, it shows that they have still residual faith and goodwill in the organisation hence we should sift out those frivolous complains from those genuine ones that need our urgent attention” These are people who we can and should do a lot for as a complaining customer still has a very high chance of becoming a “returning” customer.

The customers that we fear for the most are those that either have voiced out or not heard or those who have given up and moved on to another organisation. Those we can no longer do much for as they no longer give us a chance. Discontentment is one thing but find the root cause, remove the straw from the cauldron and the water will stop boiling.

I know I often don’t bother voicing my concerns when I have given up all hope the organization has any interest in customer service. Sadly this is a fairly common situation.

It isn’t easy to do, but organizations that are customer focused need to be taking advantage of those customers helping you by expressing the frustration (that many of your customers experience, but don’t express). To do so organizations need to develop a culture where everyone is encouraged to improve your processes. The tricky part is not claiming that is what you want, but actually creating and maintaining the systems that bring that about.

Related: The Problem is Likely Not the Person Pointing Out The ProblemCustomer Service is ImportantCustomers Get Dissed and Tell

Dr. Deming in 1980 on Product Quality in Japan and the USA

I posted an interesting document to the Curious Cat Management Library: it includes Dr. Deming’s comments as part of a discussion organized by the Government Accounting Office in 1980 on Quality in Japan and the United States.

The document provides some interesting thoughts from Dr. Deming and others; Dr. Deming’s statements start on page 52 of the document. For those really interested in management improvement ideas it is a great read. I imagine most managers wouldn’t enjoy it though (it isn’t giving direct advice for today, but I found it very interesting).

Some selected quotes from the document follow. On his work with Japan in 1950:

This movement, I told them, will fail and nothing will happen unless management does their part. Management must know something about statistical techniques and know that if they are good one place, they will work in another. Management must see that they are used throughout the company.
Quality control must take root with simple statistical techniques that management and everyone in the company must learn. By these techniques, people begin to understand the different kinds of variation. Then quality control just grow with statistical theory and further experience. All this learning must be guided by a master. Remarkable results may come quick, but one has no right to expect results in a hurry. The learning period never ends.

The statistical control of quality is not for the timid and the halfhearted. There is no way to learn except to learn it and do it. You can read about swimming, but you might drown if you had to learn it that way!

One of the common themes at that time was Deming’s methods worked because Japanese people and culture were different. That wasn’t why the ideas worked, but it was an idea many people that wanted to keep doing things the old way liked to believe.

There may be a lot of difference, I made the statement on my first visit there that a Japanese man was never too old nor too successful to learn, and to wish to learn; to study and to learn. I know that people here also study and learn. I’ll be eighty next month in October. I study every day and learn every day. So you find studious people everywhere, but I think that you find in Japan the desire to learn, the willingness to learn.

You didn’t come to hear me on this; there are other people here much better qualified than I am to talk. But in Japan, a man works for the company; he doesn’t work to please somebody. He works for the company, he can argue for the company and stick with it when he has an idea because his position is secure. He doesn’t have to please somebody. It is so here in some companies, but only in a few. I think this is an important difference.

At the time the way QC circles worked in Japan was basically employee led kaizen. So companies that tried to copy Japan told workers: now go make things better like the workers we saw in Japan were doing. Well with management not changing (and understanding Deming’s ideas, lean thinking, variation, systems thinking…) and staff not given training to understand how to improve processes it didn’t work very well. We (those reading this blog) may all now understand the advantages one piece flow. I can’t imagine too many people would jump to that idea sitting in their QC circle without having been told about one piece flow (I know I wouldn’t have), and all the supporting knowledge needed to make that concept work.

QC circles can make tremendous contributions. But let me tell you this, Elmer. If it isn’t obvious to the workers that the managers are doing their part, which only they can do, I think that the workers just get fed up with trying in vain to improve their part of the work. Management must do their part: they must learn something about management.

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Psychology of Improvement

Even if ideas are good and have significant importance (high value to customers, reduce waste dramatically, improve safety…) implementing the ideas can be difficult. Getting people to make an effort to improve a situation by simply laying out the dry facts is not very effective. You need to engage in the management system to make your ideas something other people care about and want to do (you need to consider the psychology of getting things done in human systems).

Often a good way to do this is not to just think what is best for the performance of the system, but figure out what people want fixed/improved… and then figure out what I think could help. Then pick among various options to improve based upon the advantages to the performance of the organization, desires of decision makers and the ability of an improvement effort to build the capacity of the organization for customer focused continuous improvement.

Few places I have worked just want to adopt Deming’s ideas (which is my belief for what is the best way to improve performance). But they have things they care about – reducing the times people get mad at them, increasing cash flow… I find it much easier to help them with their desires and slowly get them to appreciate the benefit of Deming’s management ideas, lean thinking and quality tools. Though even this way it isn’t easy.

Even if the organization I am working with doesn’t think based on Deming’s ideas, I do. So I believe any effort to improve the management system must consider all 4 areas of Deming’s management system. In the beginning of an improvement effort psychology is very important for the change agent to consider and deal with. With an understanding of psychology and an understanding of the organization you can build appropriate strategies to improve and build the capacity of the organization to improve over the long term.

I also think about the long term as I am thinking of how to help. It is important to not just solve the current dilemma but to improve the organizational capacity to improve in the future. And for me that means increasing people’s understanding of the ideas I explore in the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog.

Related: Building the Adoption of Management Improvement Ideas in Your OrganizationStop Demotivating EmployeesHow to Improve