In Consideration Of Continuous Improvement: (Part I)

 

“Now we need something Dramatically Different from “getting better” – from even getting “a whole lot better” – at what we did for a couple of hundred years.  Now we need train ourselves to play and Entirely New Game…a game called Re-imagine, in which the rules that define “better” no longer apply.”  -Tom Peters via Re-imagine! Business Excellence in a Disruptive Age

Since the early 1900’s, with the rise of Taylorism and the Principles of Scientific Management, we have focused our systems, organizations and individuals on maximum efficiency and standardization of best practices.  The factory model.  In many ways, it was the automation of the late 19th and 20th century, except the automation was of us, rather than the robots of the 21st century that are quickly beginning to take center stage.  It was a focus of efficiency…and for many years and in many ways it worked for what it was aimed at, ultimate productivity.

However, what we are finally beginning to realize is that what’s efficient isn’t always effective, and what’s effective isn’t always effecient.  What has served us well through the late 19th and 20th century is no longer effective for the world that we now live in.  The factory model of efficiency and the hierarchical, command and control style of leadership that accompanied it have lost relevance in a world that is changing, shifting and accelerating at a turbulent pace and rapid rate.

As General Stanley McChrystal shares in Team of Teams, “Over time we came to realize that more than our foe, we were actually struggling to cope with an environment that was fundamentally different from anything we’d planned or trained for.  The speed and interdependence of events had produced new dynamics that threatened to overwhelm the time-honored processes and culture we’d built.  Little of our transformation was planned. Few of the plans that we did develop unfolded as envisioned.  Instead, we evolved in rapid iterations, changing – assessing – changing again.”  For which he adds, “The environment in which we found ourselves, a convergence of twenty-first-century factors and more timeless human interactions, demanded a dynamic, constantly adapting approach.”  As he adds, “continual adaption had transformed it into a fundamentally new organization – one that functioned using distinctly different processes and relationships.”

What General McChrsytal shares in Team of Teams is a lesson that we must realize, and internalize very quickly.  A lesson of what served us well in the past, may well no longer serve us well in the present or the future.  And in many ways, it is those successes of the past that often entrench us and push us towards irrelevance in the future.  For which McChrystal purports, “We’re not lazier or less intelligent than our parents or grandparents, but what worked for them simply won’t do the trick for us now.  Understanding and adapting to these factors isn’t optional; it will be what differentiates success from failure in the years ahead.”

Which will require deep reflection as we determine next steps, both as individuals and as organizations.

We can no longer march along in a linear and predictable fashion and hope that it will be business as usual in the future.  We live in a time of heightened chaos urged on by the turbulent pace and nature of change, supported by accelerated obsolescence and discontinuity, which is leading to greater feelings of uncertainty, ambiguity and anxiety in the present and for the future.  Leading us as individuals and organizations to recoil back to the safety of status quo, of what we’ve always known and done.  What we fail to realize, in the midst of this upheaval and chaos, we will find signals of opportunity, if we are willing to brace ourselves to face the storm in which those signals are emanating out from.

And like many signals, they raise questions that we must consider.

What do we sustain?  Where do we need to change?  Are we adapting effectively to the pace of change?  Do we keep the current direction, or is a pivot necessary?  Are we future-casting and preparing for the shifts we will face in the future?  Are the outcomes we are chasing leading us to the vision we’ve determined?  Are we entrenched in status quo, or are we growing, learning and improving, both as individuals and as an organization?

It is in our questions and reflection that we find our way forward in a world that has shifted from technical problems to adaptable challenges.  It is where we find the willingness and agility to dig past the processes and structures that keep us entrenched in stasis and status quo thinking and doing.

As Atul Gawande shares in Better, “Betterment is a perpetual labor.  The world is chaotic, disorganized, and vexing, and medicine is nowhere spared that reality.  To complicate matters, we in medicine are also only humans ourselves.  We are distractible, week, and given to our own concerns.”  For which he continues, “The question, then, is not whether one accepts the responsibility.  Just by doing this work, one has.  The question is, having accepted the responsibility, how one does such work well.”

Which brings us back to this idea of ‘continuous improvement’ and what that really means for us as individuals and organizations.  A concept that may have been focused more on efficiency, than it has been aimed at effectiveness.  In many ways, we have layered our ‘factory model’ way of thinking upon this concept.  It is this belief that if we work ‘harder’ then things will be ‘better’.  But that is not the reality we currently face, from business to government, and education.  As General McChrystal purports, “All the efficiency in the world has no value if it remains static in a volatile environment.”

Rather, we will need to not only work smarter, but very often, differently.  We are approaching a time where living in beta and constant iteration will be the way we approach our work.  A constant iteration of what sustains, what adapts, and what transforms.

However, first and foremost, this idea of ‘better’ and ‘continuous improvement’ requires a decision, a decision to become uncomfortable, both as individuals and as organizations.  For stretching ourselves towards this concept of ‘continuous improvement’ is not always a comfortable situation, as it requires learning, unlearning, relearning, shifting, adapting, and changing.  A beta mindset.

However, as mentioned before, just working harder will not necessarily get us moving towards a state of ‘continuous improvement’.

It will require AND.  Too often we find ourselves creating situations of either/or thinking that limit the AND that leads to our ability to improve and ‘plus’ our strategies, processes and organizational structures forward.  So, as we consider how to push forward towards ‘better’ let’s consider the AND of 3I’s that can support an environment of ‘continuous improvement’ in our organizations.

Innovation AND Improvement Science AND Implementation Science.

Unless we are going to continue focusing on efficiency and harder, then innovation will be necessary to moving us forward, in meeting the future more effectively.  However, better understanding innovation will allow us to move our organizations more effectively towards ‘continuous improvement’.  Too often, we associate innovation only with change, with the novel and new, when what we need to better understand is that innovation, at its best, is focused on creating value.  Innovation, when focused on value, not only improves the effectiveness of organizations to better support our individuals in their work, it allows us to remain more relevant moving into the future.

However, innovation is only point form which to start, for innovation alone is not enough to support this idea of ‘continuous improvement’.  We have to determine if the why, how and what of our innovative efforts is creating value for our people and our organization.  Which goes back to knowing what to sustain and where and what to iterate or change, as well as engaging our ability to remain agile and adaptable, to learn, unlearn and relearn.

Which brings the AND into our innovation efforts through the I of Improvement Science, providing us a framework to determine if our innovation is adding value to and for our people and our organization.  The Carnegie Foundation provide us with Six Core Principles of Improvement that can be used to support our innovative efforts through Improvement Science.

Which they share as:

(1) Make the work problem-specific and user-centered.  “It starts with a single question: What specifically is the problem we are trying to solve…”

(2) Variation in performance is the core problem to address.  “The critical issue is not what works, but rather what works…”

(3) See the system that produces the current outcomes.  “It is hard to improve what you do not fully understand…”

(4) We cannot improve at scale what we cannot measure.  “Embed measures of key outcomes and processes to track if change is an improvement…”

(5) Anchor practice improvement in disciplined inquiry.  “Engage rapid cycles of Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) to learn fast, fail fast, and improve quickly…”

(6) Accelerate improvements through networked communities. “Embrace the wisdom of crowds…”

These Six Principles of Improvement allow us to better determine the effectiveness of our innovative efforts, allowing us to be more agile, adaptive both as individuals and organizations in iterating our way forward more effectively.  Especially, if the goal of innovation is to create value and move us closer towards this concept of ‘continuous improvement’.

While Improvement Science provides a positive framework for iterating our innovative efforts forward, the I of Implementation Science is an AND that adds and plusses forward the idea of ‘continuous improvement’, especially in support of our innovative efforts.

As the National Implementation Research Network (NIRN) shares, “Implementation Science is the study of factors that influence the full and effective use of innovations in practice.  The goal is not to answer factual questions about what is, but rather to determine what is required.  In Implementation Science, implementation factors are identified or developed and demonstrated in practice, to influence the full and effective use of innovations.”  

And while Implementation Science has “Implementation Drivers” and “Improvement Cycles” (not covered in this article), they also have what they call “Implementation Stages” which are considered to be “dynamic” processes that exist within an organization as they move forward with their innovative efforts.

Which they share as:

Exploration Stage:  “taking the time for exploration saves time and money and improves chances for success…”  “Readiness is assesses, as well as created…”

Installation Stage:  “the function is to acquire or repurpose the resources needed to do the work ahead, effectively…”

Initial Implementation:  “when innovation is being used for the first time…attempting to use the newly learned skills…learning how to change to accommodate and support the new ways of work…”

Full Implementation:  “new ways of providing services are now the stand ways of work…leaders must continually adjust organizational supports to facilitate the work…systems continue to change…”

As NIRN shares, “Effective implementation bridges the divide between science and practice.  It is not just in developing these practices, it is in transferring and maintaining these practices in real world settings that make it a long and complex process.”

In closing this first look at the concept of individual and organizational ‘continuous improvement’, understanding how we connect dots and engage the idea of AND is what will allow us to continue to find ways to constantly and effectively get better.  It will not only allow us to innovate in ways that allow us to parallel pace the constancy and speed of change, but provide us processes and strategies that better support and determine if how we are innovating is providing ongoing value for our people and our organization.

Effectively determining what is necessary of sustaining and what will require transformation.

“Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process.  Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible.  It does not take genius.  It takes diligence.  It takes moral clarity.  It takes ingenuity.  And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”  -Atul Gawande via Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance

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