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November 19, 2015

The Three Laws of Improvement

Let me start this post by saying that its title is a nod to the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov and his “Three Laws of Robotics”, rather than an imperious attempt by me to suggest that I know everything there is to know about improvement, and have thus empowered myself to write the commandments thereof!
I do not know everything. I just like the title and note that Asimov also later came up with a fourth law!

So back to the three laws of improvement. I am not suggesting that these are the three holy pronouncements on improvement, but rather an interesting set of principles on which to base improvement activity.

The three laws of improvement are:
1.Many small changes in a process add up to large improvements at the “system” level
2.The people in the process are best placed to understand its problems and constraints, and improve it
3.The effect of “blame” is to push information about mistakes underground

Let me explain each of these in a little more detail.

Firstly, the idea that many small changes add up to a large improvement at the “system” level is called the Doctrine of Marginal Gains. Essentially, the idea is that if you improve each step in the process by 1% you get major gains at the top level. Even better, eliminate unnecessary steps, combine others, and simplify most to get considerable efficiency gains.

While I accept that this is not always strictly true (in theory only improvements on the critical path with roll up to the “system” level), I believe this is a very powerful way of involving people in improvement by showing them the impact that their “small” improvements can have. By getting people involved and enthused, using simple tools to improve their own work processes, we can really harness the energy of those working in the organisation and, thus, begin to realise the power of improvement.

This brings me onto the second law – that the people working in the process are the best placed to understand its problems and, thus, are the best people to drive improvement activity (rather than external consultants). This is self-evidently true but often ignored by organisations who seem to think that consultants have a magic wand that will resolve all their issues without them having to change anything about the organisation. It still surprises me how many managers believe in magic pills and instant solutions.

By definition, improvement means changing how an organisation currently operates. There are no magic pills. The best way to improve is to examine your processes in great detail and address all the kinks and inefficiencies that this will throw-up. And the best people to carry out that examination, and suggest improvements, are the people who know the process intimately because they work it everyday. Of course they need training in simple improvement techniques, and it is useful to have a professional facilitator to help the team work effectively, but, essentially, the solutions lie within the organisation. Consultants/ facilitators can help by providing the necessary skills training and by asking the sort of awkward questions that employees often dare not; but the solutions to your process problems lie within your own people.

Another benefit of using the people who work the process in the improvement team is that it is a great way to fire up their enthusiasm and boost morale, as well as improve teamworking and communication. It is also very cost-effective.

The third law of improvement is, perhaps, the most important. Often when processes don’t work well or problems occur then management seek individuals to “blame”. It is a lot easier to give “feedback” and additional training to some supposedly errant individual(s) than admit that the whole process is a shambles. The trouble is that most problems and errors are, in fact, caused by issues with the process rather than by individuals; and regularly not meeting targets is an indication of an unstable process rather than inadequate individuals. The trouble is that seeking out people to blame has the effect of pushing mistakes underground. Errors are covered up (which is costly) and excuses are sought to deflect the blame (which leads to misinformation).

Unless we encourage the open discussion of mistakes without blame we will never be able to learn from them and improve. Instead of seeking a scapegoat we should be asking “What is it about the process that allows this mistake or performance issue to arise?”

These three laws are essential to creating a culture of improvement where people feel free to raise issues and concerns, and are keen to work together to resolve them. And the three laws of improvement provide the foundation for the three steps we need to take to start improving our processes:
1.Consult with your team and pick a dysfunctional process
2.Support the process team to map the process and detail its problems, constraints, risk points and delays
3.Work as a team to address the problems and constraints and minimise the risks and delays

Before I finish, I have to confess that there is actually a fourth Law of Improvement (another link to Asimov!)
4. Always focus on the customer. Anything that doesn’t benefit the customer should be eliminated. Controls and checks should be the minimum required to be effective

The customer defines the purpose of your process – a point we sometimes forget – so we need to understand the customer’s true requirement of the process in terms of outcomes, service, quality, price, and delivery. This is what we call “Customer Value”.

Our improvement activity should then seek to maximise that “value” to the customer, and this means that we need to structure the organisation around delivering value to the customer, not around internal operations.

Training staff to see the process from the customer’s point of view (sometimes called the “customer journey”) can be revelatory, and a powerful driver for improvement.

So there we have it, the Three (plus one) Laws of Improvement. Complete and all encompassing? No. A useful and straightforward set of principles on which to base our improvement activity? I think so.

I hope you agree.