Mind the Choice: Continuous Improvement or Continuous Problem Solving

Post by Bill Bellows, Deputy Director, The Deming Institute.

Sparky Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati Reds during most of the 1970s, spoke on occasion about the big problem he had with his Major League Baseball team.   He claimed that the Reds, also known at the time as “The Big Red Machine,” had so much talent that he had a difficult time deciding who should play each day.   His big problem is not to be confused with the big problems associated with things gone wrong, as when an automobile manufacturer tracks Things Gone Wrong (TGW), or when a hospital staff records and tracks medical errors, with the goal of zero errors.

Since being introduced to Dr. Deming and his System of Profound Knowledge, I’ve grown to appreciate blind spots that face today’s “Organizations as Usual” environment (also known by Dr. Deming as the “prevailing style of management”), with “commonly accepted levels of delays, mistakes, defective materials and defective workmanship” as a symptom of how each organization manages its resources, including time, money, equipment, and people. One way to test for what is commonly accepted in terms of the level of big problems in any organization is to investigate the focus of attention for problems with a “resource management” question, namely: “How much time and energy is spent every day in our organizations, discussing parts, tasks, modules, elements, suppliers, customers, activities, and program milestones which are going well?” In probing with this question, through presentations, seminars and consultation efforts, I have learned that few resources are routinely dedicated to an alternate TGW, Things Going Well.

The answer to the “resource management” question is usually zero, often with a grin, if not a chuckle.  On occasion, I have made the observation that continual improvement, with a focus on improving what is good, must not be a priority in your organization, unless such an effort is dedicated to improvements in fixing problems faster, rather than preventing them from occurring. What’s missing from the “Organizations as Usual” focus on things gone wrong is the actual variation in things going well.

Imagine driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with a full tank of gas, but without a fuel gauge to monitor the amount of gas remaining. Such a gauge (as opposed to a trouble light, activated only when problems occur) is designed to reveal variation in Things Going Well, along a continuum from very well (full tank) to very bad (empty). All the while driving to San Francisco, things are well, yet steadily declining towards very bad. Without focusing on things going well, the car will eventually run out of gas and represent yet another Things Gone Wrong experience.  Using this driving example, the proposal being offered is that the general awareness, followed by attentive monitoring, of variation in Things Going Well in our organizations offers opportunities to prevent, if not minimize, the occurrence of big problems, including commonly accepted levels of delays, mistakes, defective materials and defective workmanship.   And, as Dr. Deming was fond of reminding audiences in his Four Day Seminars, “Stamping out fires is a lot of fun, but it is only putting things back the way they were.”

Perhaps the value proposition of proactively allocating resources to Things Going Well is not always readily apparent, even with classic reminders of economic leverage from inventor and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and English astronomer, Francis Bailey, that “a stitch in time saves nine.”

As to what is meant by proactive, a simple explanation is to apply effort while good, OK, well, or correct is happening. By comparison, being reactive is to apply effort after bad, not OK, sick, or incorrect happens. Under these definitions, monitoring the strength of a smart phone battery and charging it before it dies and visiting a doctor for an annual checkup, while feeling well, would both be considered proactive.

In other environments, the purposeful use of monitoring Things Going Well data on a control charts (or, even run charts) to record the degree of goodness of a welding process, an invoice payment process, or the fish consumption or activity levels of a killer whale at Sea World, could detect early shifts in the direction of Things Gone Wrong in each of these performances, removing them from our blind spot, long before the occurrence of big problems.  To add proper context, being proactive should be considered as an option and weighed against the alternative cost of being reactive and focusing on Things Gone Wrong. On a case-by-case basis, the proposal is to make a decision on being proactive or reactive, rather than focusing our efforts only on what is wrong and unknowingly defaulting to being reactive. “Minding the Choice,” inspired by Dr. Deming’s theory of management, offers opportunities to use Things Going Well metrics to reduce the commonly accepted levels of mistakes, but only when the savings from these reductions exceed the expense of monitoring the Things Going Well metrics.

Continuous improvement or continuous problem solving? Mind the Choice!

Related: Video – The Deming Management Method

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