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Continuous Improvement Experiments

If, like me, you believe strongly in championing continuous improvement then an obvious question is how exactly can continuous improvement be implemented? One answer I have come up with is something I call continuous improvement experiments - CIE for short.

What is a Continuous Improvement Experiment?

The idea is simple: a CIE provides guidance via a formalized structure for thinking about and doing continuous improvement. A single CIE involves explicitly changing a current practice and regularly evaluating the results. A change can be any number of things - a new procedure, use of a different tool, a new process, the elimination of an existing activity, etc. - for which there is a reasonable expectation of improvement.

Write it Down!

I believe the best way to manage continuous improvement experiments is to write them down. Consider recording the following information for each CIE:

  • Short description of the change.
  • Name of the champion(s) driving this change.
  • Experimental approach: how will be the change be adopted for the purposes of this experiment?
  • Evaluation criteria: how will the change be evaluated? What is the expected improvement? What are the criteria for ending the experiment and fully adopting or rejecting the change?
  • Time frame for the experiment: when is it starting, how frequently will progress be measured, and when might the experiment be ended?

This write-up should ideally be no more than a single page. At the bottom of this article I provide a sample CIE for adopting continuous improvement experiments.

Why Experiment?

I deliberately chose the word "experiment" instead of words such as "trial" or "activity" because I wanted to emphasize the idea of learning and de-emphasize the notion of failure. If the outcome of a CIE is to not adopt the change then this is a valuable lesson learned – not a failure. Many workplaces, especially bureaucratic ones, tend to have an attitude that it is better to fail following the status quo rather than risk failing via a different path. This attitude runs contrary to the spirit of continuous improvement.

The word "experiment" also suggests that the adoption of this change is temporary and can be reversed. This makes it easier for people to accept the change. More importantly, it makes it much easier for the change to be rejected without negative political impacts like publicly admitting a mistake was made. More than once I have seen large organizations make a significant shift in a practice which was later found to be ineffective or even harmful. But the change could not be undone because executives were unwilling to even implicitly acknowledge publicly that a mistake was made.

How Much of a Good Thing?

I believe that every project, every team, and ideally every individual should have at a minimum one continuous improvement experiment active at all times. In a true culture of continuous improvement identifying, experimenting with, and adopting improvements should be a normal and regular occurrence.

Integrating with Formal Processes

One issue I have seen arise in organizations with formal processes, especially those audited by a quality assurance (QA) group, is how to apply continuous improvement experiments to such formal processes. Any deviation from the documented process would be recorded as a deviation by QA which leads to a failure to pass the audit. Many formal processes have a defined mechanism for changing the process, but this does not support experimentation, especially not for a single team or group rather than all followers of the process. A common 'solution' I have seen to this problem is to simply experiment as you see fit, deviate as needed from the process, and risk the failed audit. While this simple solution has its merits, I do not feel it is ideal. In a true culture of continuous improvements there should be a simple, officially recognized method for performing continuous improvement experiments involving such formal processes. Not officially allowing the experiment goes against this culture. Assuming you cannot eliminate the formal processes, a better solution, therefore, is to define a formal process for continuous improvement experiments by which they are allowed to modify other formal processes. This CIE formal process would typically involve having an appropriate level of management approve CIE that affect formal processes and have these CIE logged so that the QA auditors have documented evidence for their audits. This might sound bureaucratic, and it is, but that is the consequence of having such formal processes in the first place.

Sample Continuous Improvement Experiment

To conclude I will present the write up for a continuous improvement experiment involving the adoption of CIE as a regular practice, which serves both as a concrete example and as a guide to your adoption of continuous improvement experiments within your workplace.
Description: Adopt regular use of continuous improvement experiments
Champion: Basil Vandegriend (put your name here)
Experimental approach: Introduce the concept of CIEs to a single team and have them identify several experiments to start. Record the CIE in a team log. Meet regularly (monthly) to evaluate existing CIEs and identify new ones. This could be a part of regular team meetings or done as separate meetings.
Evaluation criteria: The expected improvement is that the team will adopt a number of changes based on CIEs which will improve the team's performance and/or morale. This experiment will be evaluated based on the number of CIEs attempted, the number of changes adopted, the lessons learned (irregardless of adoption), and the amount of improvement in existing objective and subjective measures of team performance. This change will be permanently adopted if the team is in consensus that it is beneficial, or if the team's performance shows observable improvement.
Time frame: The experiment will start January 1, 2009 with quarterly evaluations (every 3 months). The experiment is tentatively planned to end after nine months.

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