Continuous Improvement. The tools ‘you’ve got’ and the right mindset beats ‘All the Gear and No Idea’

20131027-210116.jpg“The best camera is the one that’s with you”, is the title of a book by Chase Jarvis about some incredible pictures taken using an iPhone. While looking for the book I bumped into another relevant quote; “buying an expensive Nikon doesn’t make you a photographer. It makes you a Nikon owner” (source unknown).

The point is, that you can do incredible things with whatever equipment you’ve got available. These can be simple tools and methods; however with the right mindset you can get incredible results. Having the most sophisticated, ‘shiny new things’ doesn’t always guarantee success. I think this idea is as relevant to the world of continuous improvement as it is to photography. Here are two examples of why it think it works.

Everyone here has access to spreadsheet software”

I recently learnt about how a very successful and sophisticated organisation used ‘everyday’ spreadsheet software as part of continuous improvement. The reasons why?

  • It did the job (good enough is good enough);
  • People used the software daily (no extra training required); and
  • It was available (just about everyone could get access to use it).

Technology elitists will be disappointed to learn that this was Microsoft Office Excel. It’s probably not a cool thing to say but I do think there is lots that can be done with ‘off the shelf ‘ Excel to support continuous improvement. The way this organisation used Excel was to compile information on continuous improvement projects in a single file which included:

  • Financial information (output from a standard accounting system);
  • Project planning (a stripped back Gantt Chart); and
  • Basic business improvement tools (root cause analysis in Excel page – brilliant).

There was great benefit to having all the information in a single place. This was helpful to both the people running the project and those who wanted to learn from them. It doesn’t take much to email a copy of the Excel project file to someone else working in the organisation, so that they can learn from your experiences. A great help if you are trying to spread continuous improvement across the organisation. I’d also argue that the ‘working papers’ in the Excel file represent a far more realistic account of reality than a retrospectively constructed ‘best practice case study’.

One final thing, the use of Excel to record an Ishikawa Root Cause Analysis Diagram was inspired. No need for a fancy software package here, a great example of using ‘what you’ve got’, to maximum effect.

Back of envelope’ scribbles versus new ‘whistles and bells’ software package.

A while back I worked with two separate organisations who were trying to introduce performance management systems. They had very different approaches.

  • Organisation A took the ‘Big Bang’ approach and invested heavily in some performance management software. The implementation plans looked brilliant. Dozens of workshops, ‘senior system administrators’ and ‘champions’ strategically placed in every department.
  • Organisation B took the ‘cheap and cheerful, home grown’ option. This was basically lots of spreadsheets (you guessed right….it was Excel) that were completed by each department and submitted to a central department who compiled the information and engaged in some analysis and ‘monitoring’ of performance. Where departments were unable to submit Excel returns, alternative methods were permitted. Not quite scribbles on the back of an envelope, but not far off.

Two years on and in Organisation A the new software system was discredited and in disarray. The phrase ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ pretty much summed up the situation. There had been a very limited culture of measuring and monitoring performance, which the ‘Whistle and Bells Software’ had done nothing to encourage.

By contrast, in Organisation B they were by this stage crying out for new some software. The spreadsheets and ‘back of envelope’ submissions had reached the limit of what was possible. When they did introduce some specific performance management software, it was a success. The mindset had been developed and they were ready for something extra.

The best tools are what you’ve got.  Going back to the original point about making the most of the tools you have available. I do think that with the right mindset a great deal of continuous improvement can be achieved with simple tools.

The Ishikawa Root Cause Analysis diagram is a great tool for stepping back and taking a good look at the processes in any organisation. Just like the Ricoh Gemba Mat (my absolute favourite) or the 5 Whys.

What you need is the right mindset which includes some understanding of the principles, what needs to be done, how to do it, and what tools to use. Jumping straight to the ‘fancy tools’ can just lead to a bad case of ‘all the gear and no idea’.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. It is possible to achieve a great deal of continuous improvement with some ‘everyday’ tools and methods.
  2. What ‘you’ve got’ can sometimes generate some innovative solutions, for example the Ishikawa Diagram in Excel
  3. Before jumping to the ‘whistles and bells’ solution it is worth pausing and thinking, is ‘good enough, good enough’.

Finally, the mention of Ishikawa has given me the opportunity to link to another of my favourite videos from the Juran Institute on root cause analysis.

Picture Source: Ishikawa Fish Bone Diagram.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. Great blog! Must admit I’m finding this with social media – people are continuously trying to sell new packages which can improve engagement e.g. tools to send info to your followers when they’re online, but shouldn’t we just get to know people and organisations and find out when they’re online that way?

    Good point about the Excel speadsheet being more helpful than a case study too – I can imagine that it must be a very revealing document!

    – Dyfrig

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