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A Toolbook for Quality Improvement and Problem Solving (contents)

Four keys to successful projects

The Quality Toolbook > Making tools work > Four keys to successful projects

Be enabled | Be focused | Make sure | Use common sense


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When working in a quality improvement or problem-solving project, there are four fundamental principles that can be applied to significantly improve the chance of a successful outcome:

These are discussed in more detail below.

Be enabled

Being enabled means putting in a reasonable effort before the project starts to ensure its successful completion. This includes:

  • Getting clear management backing, including authorization to spend an appropriate amount of effort in the project and commitment to implement results. Nothing kills a project more effectively than lack of management support.
  • Getting the right people involved. The most important people here are those who are directly involved in the process, who understand its operation and who will have to implement or will be affected by subsequent changes.
  • Making sure the team understands the improvement process. Training is best done as close to the actual usage as possible, and may even be interleaved within appropriate stages.
  • Getting a facilitator to help with the implementation of the improvement process. This person is concerned only that the team is successful; they have no stake in any particular solution. Facilitating can be a key and highly skilled job.
  • Making sure you have the authority to change the process. There is no point spending time in finding improvements that you will not be able to implement. This usually means either changing your own process or collaborating with other process owners in the improvement project.

Be focused

Being focused means paying close attention to the problem and the process during the whole project. This includes:

  • Having an enthusiastic leader who cares deeply about the problem, the improvement process and the people in the team. Improvement teams should be led in a participative, not directive manner.
  • Being focused on the needs of direct and indirect customers. The objective of any process is to satisfy the needs of its customers.
  • Using clear objectives and plans to help the group pull together in the same direction towards the desired goal.
  • Carefully selecting and using appropriate tools. The right tool in the right hands can be very incisive, cutting quickly through to the needed solution.
  • Identifying the most effective things on which to focus from the many possible activities (selecting the 'significant few' from the 'trivial many').
  • Keeping things simple. Although a degree of complexity may be required to understand sufficient detail to make improvements, excessive complexity causes undue effort and may significantly reduce the ease with which results can be communicated.
  • Selecting items for action that the team is able to change. One of the traps in improvement projects is to find problems with suppliers and other people, rather than your own processes.
  • Being tenacious in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. When things do not work it is easy to give up, quoting bad tools, waste of time, etc. Sticking to objectives can transform failure into success.
  • Being open to possibilities. When looking for potential problems, causes or solutions, it is easy to discount wild ideas which may be valid or which, when explored further, may lead to valid ideas.
  • Identifying adverse effects of proposed changes on other people or processes. Good solutions for you can cause undesirable problems for others.
  • Participating within an overall improvement program and allowing others to learn from your experience.

Make sure

Making sure is at the heart of many quality activities, and it is particularly important when implementing change, as this helps to give confidence that improvements will work as expected. Activities include:

  • As far as possible, basing decisions on verified facts and measured data, rather than opinions and hearsay. It is sometimes viewed as a management skill to be able to make snap decisions. This, however, can significantly reduce the chance of a successful project.

  • Finding causes before solutions, to ensure that the root cause of a problem is being addressed, and not just symptoms or intermediate causes.

  • Verifying assumptions and hypotheses. It is a trap to assume that because a tool has been used, the result must be correct.

  • Checking that implemented changes work as expected. It is one of the laws of the universe that, even after careful verification of causes and trials of solutions, some solutions will not work when put into general practice.

  • Learning from experience, including standardizing successes and finding and correcting the cause when things do not happen as expected.

  • Documenting progress of the project. Writing things down enables unambiguous communication and allows previous decisions to be reviewed.

Use common sense

It has been said that common sense is uncommon, but it is a key tool in improvement projects. Common-sense activities include:

  • Recognizing that what you get out of using a tool depends largely on what you put into it. Thus using verified data will give far more reliable results than opinions taken from a single meeting.
  • Balancing effort with potential return. It is clearly worth putting a lot of work into a project that will double sales, but it is probably not worth this amount of effort to save five minutes a day in sorting mail.
  • Only taking on tasks that you have a reasonable chance of completing in any given timescale. This does not mean shying away from challenges, but success should be given the best possible opportunity too.
  • Not judging tools by their name. There are impressive sounding names which hide relatively simple tools. Some of these come from literal translations of the Japanese name!
  • Not judging tools by their output. The value of some tools is as much in the doing and the thinking that they cause as in the final results. Other tools have complex-looking results which are produced with quite simple methods and can be understood with a simple explanation.
  • Using teams and tools for serious problems. Putting excessive effort into problems where the solution is obvious is trivializing the tools and techniques used, and can lead to them falling into disrepute.
  • Making the work easier with available equipment. Computers can be used to organize information in databases, do calculations with spreadsheets and perform other tasks with specialized software. It may even be possible to connect the computer directly to measurement sensors.
  • Knowing that quality improvement tools and techniques are not magic. It is not uncommon for people to assume that just using them will automatically guarantee success. On the other hand, it is also common for skepticism to prevent people from even starting to use them. Most tools at best only increase the chance of success (although this can be a significant increase).
  • Balancing realistic expectation with enthusiasm and optimism. Expecting too little or too much can result in disappointment.
  • Expecting there to be a learning curve for using tools and having patience when learning. It usually takes several attempts to get up to speed in using new tools and techniques. The key is to use the 'review' stage to try to determine honestly the key reasons why tools did or did not work as expected.


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