A Tale of Two Improvements

A Tale of Two Improvements

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--in short, the period, although seemed like any other period, was nothing that this generation has ever seen or experienced before. 

 

The year before was one heck of a year! Everyone sure wanted to forget! And when I say everybody I mean in the world everybody. It was the year of the global pandemic. Economies shut down, schools shut down, airplanes grounded, people locked down. In short, life shut down. It was a year where travel became virtually non-existent and what little travel was possible was done with great pain. Sometimes going to the local grocery store was a problem in itself.

 

It was the year of face masks. Everybody wore masks. It made it harder to communicate but at least we realized how beautiful everyone's eyes were because that's all we could see.

 

The offices also shut down and the world was forced to become accustomed to a concept called remote working. We talked with our colleagues and clients over video conference calls. Through the magic of these calls, we got to see a room in everybody's homes or at least a portion of their walls in the background.

 

I was my having traditional Thursday night drink at the local pub as things were going back to normal. The kids were old enough and my wife and I had this agreement that on the third Thursday nights she would do something with her friends and I would have some drinks with mine.

 

The bar was mostly empty. Still, I enjoyed my drink as it gave me a chance to reflect on the improvement project we have been working on.

 

I was lost in my thoughts when my eyes caught my friend John.

 

John and I were in the same business but worked for different companies. We were both in charge of improving the way our organizations worked. We formed a friendship over time.

 

After a bit of chit chat, it turned out that we were both working on similar projects started more or less at the same time - just a few weeks ago. Naturally this interested both of us as we could exchange professional notes and learn from each other.

 

"So, how is it going with your project?", I asked.

 

He finished his whiskey and asked for another one. He looked at his glass for a minute too long that I thought either he did not hear me or he did not want to answer me. I was contemplating on what to say next when he said "Not good."

 

O-kay. "What's up?"

 

"The project is all over the place. Nobody seems to know what the project's aim is, even though I thought it was clear to everyone. I guess it was not. WE ARE LIKE HEADLESS CHICKENS. It became obvious that there was no pre-existing measurement criteria for the changes and that took a while to figure out. Then all of a sudden nobody has time for the project."

 

Oh boy. This really did not look good.

 

"That's OK. It has only been a couple of weeks. I am sure you'll catch up."

 

"Are you kidding? It has been 6 weeks so far."

 

"Wait, what? I thought you guys started at the same time we did - like a few weeks ago?"

 

"Nope."

 

This was getting worse and worse. I chose not to talk about our project which was going wonderfully. There was no need to make him feel worse than he already was. He paused and continued: "But enough about me, how is your project going?"

 

Uh oh. So much for not making him feel bad.

 

"We are doing OK. We got going two-three weeks ago, did our research and started the project and wrote down our aim for the project. We moved on to defining the criteria of how we are going to measure what we want to improve. We are now working on our PDSA Cycles. The team leaders are pretty excited - progress gets everyone energized!"

 

As I was talking, I could see John sinking further and further in his chair. Was I gloating? "That's great!", he said. It was time to change the subject. We talked about life, family and kids the rest of the night and this seemed to take his mind off the problems he was having.

 

We called it a night sometime after. I felt for him and hoped that things would get better.

 

***

 

The next month I walked into the bar feeling pretty good about myself. The project was going really well. We were running several tests on the changes that we wanted to make to see if they would result in an improvement. Everything was being documented and we were learning from the small problems that we were running into.  Based on this, we were able to adapt the changes we were testing. Teams were sharing their results with each other benefitting from each other's experience. Teams were happy, sponsors were happy, I was happy. We were making progress and everybody was motivated.

 

John was already at the bar.

 

"Hey John", I said, "How is it going?".

 

"Great" was the answer however his tone was anything but. I did not need to ask what was wrong as he just continued. I had no idea if he was talking to me or to himself.

 

"We cannot collect the data we are after because people do not have the time for us. Can you imagine? No time. What? No time for improving? No time for making more profits? The management keeps putting more pressure on the team without asking how things are going. I know it has been over three months by now but these things take time. And why does it take so long just to install anything on a computer?"

 

Was that a real or a rhetorical question? I was getting ready to answer but John was on fire. He continued.

 

"All I wanted was the team to have an Excel add-in so we can run some analysis using control charts. By the time we managed to install them, we could have had masters in statistics. Turns out we are not the admins of our own laptops, we have no control. What do they expect us to do? Compute it all by hand? Do you know how hard and scary the math is for these control charts?"

 

Yeah. Very. But I did not say anything as I suspected he was not done.

 

"And.."

 

Yup. I was right.

 

"Nobody has time for documentation. When we have some documentation it's all over the place. I am lost between various cloud drives. Every time I look for something I need to go through 3 different folders because that's what different departments are working with. And I have to read the documents from beginning to end just to find one useful piece of information because everybody documents differently."

 

Pause. An uncomfortable one.

 

Even though I knew John for a relatively short amount of time, I believed John to be a competent manager from our conversations we had and a good person but he was chasing the shadows because there was no method to what he was doing. For a guy that was supposed to improve processes, he was lacking the very thing he was trying to improve. A method, a process.

 

While I was going through how I could approach John about his work, he asked me how my project was going.  I thought this was my chance and told him our progress. It looked like we were going to spread the applicable changes to the rest of the organization pretty soon. It would have taken us roughly 3 months from start to finish.

 

I was not telling him all this to gloat but to help him and I really did have a plan. When I was done talking, before I could continue, he cut me off saying, "What is wrong with me? Am I this bad? How can you guys finish an improvement project in the same time frame that we are just getting off the ground? And with lots of problems I might add. What the…" He took another sip from his drink instead.

 

He then asked me some questions about my project. He seemed to find it unrealistic that we were progressing so fast so soon. I started to execute my plan when I saw an opening in the conversation.

 

"I believe you are a good improvement professional. You have all the basic knowledge but if you don’t mind me saying so, you lack any methods and processes. You might have had success in the past but I think, and I say this with utmost respect, that was more of a fluke. This is not to say you do not know what you are doing but rather need to channel in the right direction with the right methodology. I am willing to show you what we are doing and how we  are doing it if you do not mind and promise to keep an open mind."

 

He looked at me. He was clearly touched by what I had just said and his face was emotionally charged. We decided to meet at our office the next day for about an hour or so.

 

"Don’t worry about it. Everything will be alright." were my last words to him.

 

***

 

John was 15 minutes early to our meeting the next day. I showed him our project charters, our test cycles using the PDSA methodology, our control charts all in one place, in a software called Aimi. I cautioned him not to confuse PDSA with PDCA as they are two very different methods.

 

I introduced him to the framework we use called Accelerated Innovation and Model for Improvement - which is an acronym for Aimi.

 

"The software has a project research section where you can explore with your team if the project is worth going forward or you can directly start a project if you wish. When you start a project from your research, you do not need to enter the same information twice as the relevant data is carried over."

 

I continued.

 

"In any improvement project we start by asking 3 questions. "What are we trying to accomplish?", "How will we know a change is an improvement?", and "What changes can we make that may result in improvement?". The software has a bunch of questions in each section to guide through the steps to get for the answers to these questions. For example, you did not start with the first question and that is why you guys got lost."

 

He was glued to the screen.

 

"As you can see the software does the heavy lifting for you. In effect, you are just answering bunch of questions. The screens are pretty self-explanatory."

 

He could see the method and the theory coming together with the technology.

 

I went on to explain the software in a bit more detail by showing him how he can document his meetings and how the reports are ready for the sponsors any time they want. When I explained how we assess the projects using a framework called MUSIQ to define the relative strengths and weaknesses of the project so we can work on them he almost fainted.

 

He was amazed at how everything was standardized, how the software easily rendered data in the form of the control charts even marking the special causes showing what rule was applied. He said "But this means there is no need for training.". I laughed, "Not  really -  nothing can replace humans. It's always a good idea for the team leaders and members to have the training and the knowledge but it surely makes it easier. It's a real time saver and helps people to focus on what's important."

 

Four hours later, I told him that I believed this was a good start and he had enough to go on. I told him about the academy section where he can learn about the method and the excellent customer support. I told him that he could get a trial of the software, and transfer the project he was working onto Aimi and see how he goes.

 

I gave him my phone number just in case.

 

***

 

During the few days following our meeting John had called me a few times with some questions and to express how the software was helping things move along in the project. He loved the method and the software. He wanted to learn more - take some courses about this amazing "way of doing improvements".

 

But after a couple of weeks, nothing. I was worried about him but thought better of it and gave him his space.

 

Now that the "drink night" was upon us, I looked forward to seeing him but I was a bit nervous at the same time. A million things could have gone wrong. Was there enough time for him to get out of the hole he was in? He might have taken shortcuts, or the leadership team might have had enough, ran out of patience and pulled the plug on the project… or worse on John.

 

These and thousand other negative thoughts were going through my mind as I got closer to the bar. I told the voices in my head to shut up, took a deep breath and walked in.

 

The bar was busier than the previous months. I took my wallet out to get a drink when John stepped in front of me out of nowhere and stopped me.

 

"You're never going to pay for drinks when you are with me ever again pal." he said with the biggest grin on his face. Then he turned to a group of people further down the bar.

 

"Hey team, ", he said joyfully, "this is the guy I have been telling you about."

 

I knew then that John was alright. I patted him on the back laughing. I could not wait to hear the journey my friend has started on.

 

This was going to be a great night.