Tag Archives: continuous improvement

Happy 10th Birthday!

10 years ago today, this blog published its first post: “How Do I Do a Lean Six Sigma (LSS) Project?” Looking back, it seems like a pretty simple place to have started. I didn’t know whether it would even be useful to anyone, but I was committed to making my personal PDSA cycles high-impact: I was going to export things I learned, or things I found valuable. (As it turns out, many people did appreciate the early posts even though it would take a few years for that to become evident!)

Since then, hundreds more have followed to help people understand more about quality and process improvement in theory and in practice. I started writing because I was in the middle of my PhD dissertation in the Quality Systems program at Indiana State, and I was discovering so many interesting nuggets of information that I wanted to share those with the world – particularly practitioners, who might not have lots of time (or even interest) in sifting through the research. In addition, I was using data science (and some machine learning, although at the time, it was much more difficult to implement) to explore quality-related problems, and could see the earliest signs that this new paradigm for problem solving might help fuel data-driven decision making in the workplace… if only we could make the advanced techniques easy for people in busy jobs to use and apply.

We’re not there yet, but as ASQ and other organizations recognize Quality 4.0 as a focus area, we’re much closer. As a result, I’ve made it my mission to help bring insights from research to practitioners, to make these new innovations real. If you are developing or demonstrating any new innovative techniques that relate to making people, processes, or products better, easier, faster, or less expensive — or reducing risks and building individual and organizational capabilities — let me know!

I’ve also learned a lot in the past decade, most of which I’ve spent helping undergraduate students develop and refine their data-driven decision making skills, and more recently at Intelex (provider of integrated environment, health & safety, and quality management EHSQ software to enterprises and smaller organizations). Here are some of the big lessons:

  1. People are complex. They have multidimensional lives, and work should support and enrich those lives. Any organization that cares about performance — internally and in the market — should examine how it can create complete and meaningful experiences. This applies not only to customers, but to employees and partners and suppliers. It also applies to anyone an organization has the power and potential to impact, no matter how small.
  2. Everybody wants to do a good job (and be recognized for it). How can we create environments where each person is empowered to contribute in all the areas where they have talent and interest? How can these same environments be designed with empathy as a core capability?
  3. Your data are your most valuable assets. It sounds trite, but data is becoming as valuable as warehouses, inventory, and equipment. I was involved in a project a few years ago where we digitized data that had been collected for three years — and by analyzing it, we uncovered improvement opportunities that when implemented, saved thousands of dollars a week. We would not have been able to do that if the data had remained scratched in pencil on thousands of sheets of well-worn legal paper.
  4. Nothing beats domain expertise (especially where data science is concerned). I’ve analyzed terabytes of data over the past decade, and in many cases, the secrets are subtle. Any time you’re using data to make decisions, be sure to engage the people with practical, on-the-ground experience in the area you’re studying.
  5. Self-awareness must be cultivated. The older you get, and the more experience you gain, the more you know what you don’t know. Many of my junior colleagues (and yours) haven’t reached this point yet, and will need some help from senior colleagues to gain this awareness. At the same time, those of you who are senior have valuable lessons to learn from your junior colleagues, too! Quality improvement is grounded in personal and organizational learning, and processes should help people help each other uncover blind spots and work through them — without fear.

Most of all, I discovered that what really matters is learning. We can spend time supporting human and organizational performance, developing and refining processes that have quality baked in, and making sure that products meet all their specifications. But what’s going on under the surface is more profound: people are learning about themselves, they are learning about how to transform inputs into outputs in a way that adds value, and they are learning about each other and their environment. Our processes just encapsulate that organizational knowledge that we develop as we learn.

Practical Poka-Yoke

My Story

A couple hours ago, I went to the ATM machine.

I don’t use cash often, so I haven’t been to an ATM machine in several months. Regardless, I’m fully accustomed to the pattern: put card in, enter secret code, tell the machine what I want, get my money, take my card.

This time, my money was taking a looonnnnnnnngggg time to pop out.

Maybe there’s a problem with the connection? Maybe I should check back later? I sat in my car thinking about what the best plan of action would be… and then I decided to read the screen. (Who needs to read the screen? We all know what’s supposed to happen… right? Once, I was even able to use an ATM machine entirely in the Icelandic language just because I knew the pattern.)

PLEASE TAKE YOUR CARD TO DISPENSE FUNDS, it said.

This is one of the simplest and greatest examples of poka-yoke (or “mistake-proofing”) I’ve ever seen. I had to take my card out and put it away before I could get my money! I was highly motivated to get my money (I mean, that’s the specific thing I came to the ATM to get). Of course I’m going to do what you want, ATM! The machine forced me to take my card — and prevented me from accidentally leaving my card in the machine. This could be problematic for both me and the bank.

The History

Why have I never seen this before? Why don’t other ATMs do this? I went on an intellectual fishing expedition and found out that no, the idea is not new… Lockton et al. (2010) said:

A major opportunity for error with historic ATMs came from a user leaving his or her ATM card in the machine’s slot after the procedure of dispensing cash or other account activity was complete (Rogers et al., 1996, Rogers and Fisk, 1997). This was primarily because the [ATM dispensed the cash] before the card was returned (i.e. a different sequence for Plan 3 in the HTA of Fig. 3), leading to a postcompletion error—“errors such as leaving the original document behind in a photocopier… [or] forgetting to replace the gas cap after filling the tank” (Byrne and Bovair, 1997). Postcompletion error is an error of omission (Matthews et al., 2000); the user’s main goal (Plan 0 in Fig. 3) of getting cash was completed so the further “hanging postcompletion action” (Chung and Byrne, 2008) of retrieving the card was easily forgotten.

The obvious design solution was, as Chung and Byrne (2008) put it, “to place the hanging postcompletion action ‘on the critical path’ to reduce or eliminate [its] omission” and this is what the majority of current ATMs feature (Freed and Remington, 2000): an interlock forcing function (Norman, 1988) or control poka-yoke (Shingo, 1986), requiring the user to remove the card before the cash is dispensed. Zimmerman and Bridger (2000) found that a ‘card-returned-then-cash-dispensed’ ATM dialogue design was at least 22% more efficient (in withdrawal time) and resulted in 100% fewer lost cards (i.e. none) compared with a ‘cash-dispensed-then-card-returned’ dialogue design.

I don’t think the most compelling message here has anything to do with design or ATMs, but with the value of hidden gems tucked into research papers.  There can be a long lag time between generating genius ideas and making them useful to real people.

One of my goals over the next few years is to help as many of these nuggets get into the mainstream as possible. If you’ve learned something from research that would benefit quality or business, get in touch. I want to hear from you!

Reference

Lockton, D., Harrison, D., & Stanton, N. A. (2010). The Design with Intent Method: A design tool for influencing user behaviour. Applied ergonomics41(3), 382-392.

How to Assess the Quality of a Chatbot

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

Quality is the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bear upon its ability to meet stated and implied needs.” (ISO 9001:2015, p.3.1.5) Quality assurance is the practice of assessing whether a particular product or service has the characteristics to meet needs, and through continuous improvement efforts, we use data to tell us whether or not we are adjusting those characteristics to more effectively meet the needs of our stakeholders.

But what if the entity is a chatbot?

In June 2017, we published a paper that explored that question. We mined the academic and industry literature to determine 1) what quality attributes have been used by others to determine chatbot quality, we 2) organized them according to the efficiency, effectiveness, and satisfaction (using guidance from the ISO 9241 definition of usability), and 3) we explored the utility of Saaty’s Analytic Hierarchy Process (AHP) to help organizations select between one or more versions of chatbots based on quality considerations. (It’s sort of like A/B testing for chatbots.)

“There are many ways for practitioners to apply the material in this article:

  • The quality attributes in Table 1 can be used as a checklist for a chatbot implementation team to make sure they have addressed key issues.
  • Two or more conversational systems can be compared by selecting the most significant quality attributes.
  • Systems can be compared at two points in time to see if quality has improved, which may be particularly useful for adaptive systems that learn as they as exposed to additional participants and topics.”

What Protests and Revolutions Reveal About Innovation

The following book review will appear in an issue of the Quality Management Journal later this year:

The End of Protest: A New Playbook for Revolution.   2016.  Micah White.  Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Alfred A. Knopf Publishing.  317 pages.

You may wonder why I’m reviewing a book written by the creator of the Occupy movement for an audience of academics and practitioners who care about quality and continuous improvement in organizations, many of which are trying to not only sustain themselves but also (in many cases) to make a profit. The answer is simple: by understanding how modern social movements are catalyzed by decentralized (and often autonomous) interactive media, we will be better able to achieve some goals we are very familiar with. These include 1) capturing the rapidly changing “Voice of the Customer” and, in particular, gaining access to its silent or hidden aspects, 2) promoting deep engagement, not just in work but in the human spirit, and 3) gaining insights into how innovation can be catalyzed and sustained in a truly democratic organization.

This book is packed with meticulously researched cases, and deeply reflective analysis. As a result, is not an easy read, but experiencing its modern insights in terms of the historical context it presents is highly rewarding. Organized into three sections, it starts by describing the events leading up to the Occupy movement, the experience of being a part of it, and why the author feels Occupy fell short of its objectives. The second section covers several examples of protests, from ancient history to modern times, and extracts the most important strategic insight from each event. Next, a unified theory of revolution is presented that reconciles the unexpected, the emotional, and the systematic aspects of large-scale change.

The third section speaks directly to innovation. Some of the book’s most powerful messages, the principles of revolution, are presented in Chapter 14. “Understanding the principles behind revolution,” this chapter begins, “allows for unending tactical innovation that shifts the paradigms of activism, creates new forms of protest, and gives the people a sudden power over their rulers.” If we consider that we are often “ruled” by the status quo, then these principles provide insight into how we can break free: short sprints, breaking patterns, emphasizing spirit, presenting constraints, breaking scripts, transposing known tactics to new environmental contexts, and proposing ideas from the edge. The end result is a masterful work that describes how to hear, and mobilize, the collective will.

 

Reviewed by

Dr. Nicole M. Radziwill

 

The Value of Defining Context

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

Image Credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to

The most important stage of problem-solving in organizations is often one of the earliest: getting everyone on the same page by defining the concepts, processes, and desired outcomes that are central to understanding the problem and formulating a solution. (“Everyone” can be the individuals on a project team, or the individuals that contribute actions to a process, or both.) Too often, we assume that the others around us see and experience the world the same way we do. In many cases, our assessments are not too far apart, which is how most people can get away with making this assumption on a regular basis.

In fact, some people experience things so differently that they don’t even “picture” anything in their minds. Can you believe it?

I first realized this divergence in the work context a few years ago, when a colleague and I were advising a project at a local social services office. We asked our students to document the process that was being used to process claims. There were nearly ten people who were part of this claims-processing activity, and our students interviewed all of them, discovering that each person had a remarkably different idea about the process that they were all engaged in! No wonder the claims processing time was nearly two months long.

We helped them all — literally — get onto the same page, and once they all had the same mental map of the process, time-in-system for each claim dropped to 10 days. (This led us to the quantum-esque conclusion that there is no process until it is observed.)

Today, I read about how mathematician Keith Devlin revolutionized the process of intelligence gathering after 9/11 using this same approach… by going back to one of the first principles he learned in his academic training:

So what had I done? Nothing really — from my perspective. My task was to find a way of analyzing how context influences data analysis and reasoning in highly complex domains involving military, political, and social contexts. I took the oh-so-obvious (to me) first step. I need to write down as precise a mathematical definition as possible of what a context is. It took me a couple of days…I can’t say I was totally satisfied with it…but it was the best I could do, and it did at least give me a firm base on which to start to develop some rudimentary mathematical ideas.

The fairly large group of really smart academics, defense contractors, and senior DoD personnel spent the entire hour of my allotted time discussing that one definition. The discussion brought out that all the different experts had a different conception of what a context is — a recipe for disaster.

What I had given them was, first, I asked the question “What is a context?” Since each person in the room besides me had a good working concept of context — different ones, as I just noted — they never thought to write down a formal definition. It was not part of what they did. And second, by presenting them with a formal definition, I gave them a common reference point from which they could compare and contrast their own notions. There we had the beginnings of disaster avoidance.

Getting people to very precisely understand the definitions, concepts, processes, and desired outcomes that are central to a problem might take some time and effort, but it is always extremely valuable.

When you face a situation like this in mathematics, you spend a lot of time going back to the basics. You ask questions like, “What do these words mean in this context?” and, “What obvious attempts have already been ruled out, and why?” More deeply, you’d ask, “Why are these particular open questions important?” and, “Where do they see this line of inquiry leading?”

(You can read the full article about Devlin, and more important lessons from mathematical thinking, Here.)

View at Medium.com

If Japan Can, Why Can’t We? A Retrospective

if-japan-canJune 24, 1980 is kind of like July 4, 1776 for quality management… that’s the pivotal day that NBC News aired its one hour and 16 minute documentary called “If Japan Can, Why Can’t We?” introducing W. Edwards Deming and his methods to the American public. 

The video has been unavailable for years, but as of 2018, it’s posted on YouTube. So my sophomore undergrads in Production & Operations Management took a step back in time to get a taste of the environment in the manufacturing industry in the late 1970’s, and watched it during class.

The last time I watched it was in 1997, in a graduate industrial engineering class. It didn’t feel quite as dated as it does now, nor did I have the extensive experience in industry as a lens to view the interviews through.

What did surprise me is the challenges they were facing then aren’t that much different than the ones we face today — and the groundbreaking good advice from Deming is still good advice today.

  • Before 1980, it was common practice to produce a whole bunch of stuff and then check and see which ones were bad, and throw them out. The video provides a clear and consistent story around the need to design quality in to products and processes, which then reduces (or eliminates) the need to inspect bad quality out.
  • It was also common to tamper with a process that was just exhibiting random variation. As one of the line workers in the documentary said, “We didn’t know. If we felt like there might be a problem with the process, we would just go fix it.” Deming’s applications of Shewhart’s methods made it clear that there is no need to tamper with a process that’s exhibiting only random variation.
  • Both workers and managers seemed frustrated with the sheer volume of regulations they had to address, and noted that it served to increase costs, decrease the rate of innovation, and disproportionately hurt small businesses. They noted that there was a great need for government and industry to partner to resolve these issues, and that Japan was a model for making these interactions successful.
  • Narrator Lloyd Dobyns remarked that “the Japanese operate by consensus… we, by competition.” He made the point that one reason industrial reforms were so powerful and positive was that Japanese culture naturally supported working together towards shared goals. He cautioned managers that they couldn’t just drop in statistical quality control and expect a rosy outcome: improving quality is a cultural commitment, and the methods are not as useful in the absence of buy-in and engagement.

The video also sheds light on ASQ’s November question to the Influential Voices, which is: “What’s the key to talking quality with the C-Suite?” Typical responses include: think at the strategic level; create compelling arguments using the language of money; learn the art of storytelling and connect your case with what it important to the executives.

But I think the answer is much more subtle. In the 1980 video, workers comment on how amazed their managers were when Deming proclaimed that management was responsible for improving productivity. How could that be??!? Many managers at that time were convinced that if a productivity problem existed, it was because the workers didn’t work fast enough, or with enough skill — or maybe they had attitude problems! Certainly not because the managers were not managing well.

Implementing simple techniques like improving training programs and establishing quality circles (which demonstrated values like increased transparency, considering all ideas, putting executives on the factory floor so they could learn and appreciate the work being done, increasing worker participation and engagement, encouraging work/life balance, and treating workers with respect and integrity) were already demonstrating benefits in some U.S. companies. But surprisingly, these simple techniques were not widespread, and not common sense.

Just like Deming advocated, quality belongs to everyone. You can’t go to a CEO and suggest that there are quality issues that he or she does not care about. More likely, the CEO believes that he or she is paying a lot of attention to quality. They won’t like it if you accuse them of not caring, or not having the technical background to improve quality. The C-Suite is in a powerful position where they can, through policies and governance, influence not only the actions and operating procedures of the system, but also its values and core competencies — through business model selection and implementation. 

What you can do, as a quality professional, is acknowledge and affirm their commitment to quality. Communicate quickly, clearly, and concisely when you do. Executives have to find the quickest ways to decompose and understand complex problems in rapidly changing external environments, and then make decisions that affect thousands (and sometimes, millions!) of people. Find examples and stories from other organizations who have created huge ripples of impact using quality tools and technologies, and relate them concretely to your company.

Let the C-Suite know that you can help them leverage their organization’s talent to achieve their goals, then continually build their trust.

The key to talking quality with the C-suite is empathy.

You may also be interested in “Are Deming’s 14 Points Still Valid?” from Nov 19, 2012.

Control Charts in R: A Guide to X-Bar/R Charts in the qcc Package

xbar-chartStatistical process control provides a mechanism for measuring, managing, and controlling processes. There are many different flavors of control charts, but if data are readily available, the X-Bar/R approach is often used. The following PDF describes X-Bar/R charts and shows you how to create them in R and interpret the results, and uses the fantastic qcc package that was developed by Luca Scrucca. Please let me know if you find it helpful!

Creating and Interpreting X-Bar/R Charts in R

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