Practicing the Three Phases of Improvement! – The Assessment, Phase 1/Step 1: Collecting Data
As explained in the earlier post “Practicing the Three Phases of Improvement!“, a Process Improvement Exercise has three important and necessary phases, 1) The Assessment Phase, 2) Problem Solving Phase, and 3) Implementation Phase.
The Assessment phase has two steps, Collecting Data and Analyzing Data. We devote this article to the “Collecting Data” part of the Assessment Phase. The goal of this step is to find the appropriate and useful information to analyze.
Focus on Good Data – Mark Twain made a good point when he said, “The most interesting information comes from children, for they tell all they know and then stop.” Often we can contaminate good information by adding details fabricated by our own imaginations. As I explained in the last post, Dr. Jerry Westbrook, one of my mentors said it this way, “The number one enemy of good quality (or making good decisions) is the words ‘I think’ and ‘I know.’” This is a colorful way of saying, making decisions “off-the-top-of-your-head” or “without data” leads to incorrect and harmful solutions. On the other hand, we also might fail to collect good data by spending our time collecting easy to obtain information that takes us farther away from our goals. This is like, searching for a lost set of car keys at night under a street light because it is easier to see there. Often this happens when we become comfortable with a set of solutions and then try to apply them to every problem. Therefore, we should always collect actual data related to the actual problems and processes we are trying to improve. Furthermore, it is easy to weigh personal or political biases and imaginations higher than factual data…Don’t do that!
Types of Information – Information may be either qualitative or quantitative. Quantitative data is countable, relates to quantities, and contains quantifiable numbers. Qualitative data is more text or narrative based and may be more conversational in nature, feeling based, and harder to quantify. (Later we show how to quantify qualitative data, known as quantifying intangibles.)
In each case, focus the collection and analysis of both qualitative and quantitative information on finding processes and systems to improve (Red Flags) or to use as examples of excellence (Green Flags).
Develop a Data Collection Plan – Collecting data is the first foundational step to a successful process improvement program. Therefore, it is important to design an effective information-collecting plan. The plan should answer the key questions of what, where, how, when, and from whom you will gather the information. Each set of questions should also have a “So what” reason. Why are we asking for this information? How does it get us closer to the centralized theme of documenting the issues related to critical processes and systems required for effective and efficient operations?
What data to collect: In the words of Warren G. Bennis (an organizational consultant and author), “There is a profound difference between information and meaning.” During the first step of the Assessment Phase, we focus only on collecting information. During the second Assessment “analysis” step, we start looking for meaning in the data.
The data to collect relates to the why question(s)? During our process improvement efforts, every worthwhile future proposed change we recommend will originate from the information we now collect.
The data should have a stated goal and a connection to a picture of “what good looks like.” Although, we may also choose process improvement candidates based on our experiences with similar operations. More often, we should focus on those whom have the closest experience with the operations we are studying. Here, complaints, observed problems, or baselined metrics drive process improvement candidates. Collect information based on what you are trying to achieve. Prioritize the improvement candidates by the value the change will add to the organization. The value may be measured by cost savings, revenue generation, and/or other non-monetized improvements.
When to, Where is, and Who has the data: Start the process with the leaders and look for any previous surveys, audits, findings, or observations. Answer the more detailed “where to find the data, who to involve, and when to” questions, after we know the scope of our assessment.
How are we going to collect the data: In both cases, quantitative and qualitative information comes from many sources. Quantitative data are easier to understand because the metrics come from things we can count. Qualitative data (narratives) are harder to rate and may come from a number of sources[i] (as listed by the University of Wisconsin with some we added).
- Open-ended question and written comments on questionnaires,
- Individual Interviews and informal conversations with people inside and outside of our organizations,
- Discussion group or focus group interviews,
- Logs, Journals, and Diaries,
- Case Studies,
- previous studies,
- records and other written materials, and
- Internet searches.
Visual tools like drawings, graphs, PowerPoint slides, and pictures act as a catalyst for helping us to explain and understand details during interviews with stakeholders. Nevertheless, as Albert Einstein said, “Information is not knowledge.” One develops knowledge over time – it comes from analysis as well as practice (trial and error). Knowledge also comes from working with those who know the problems and processes the best (the front-line employees, those using the systems, suppliers, customers, etc.). The next analysis step helps us build knowledge.
How can we practice improvement?
Each of the three phases are required to improve. During the Assessment Phase, good usable data has to be collected. How can you participate? Keep a lookout for ways to improve and be open-minded. As you have ideas, do not jump to conclusions; instead, think in terms of information to collect that will help validate your concerns. Share your observations with those in your organization/practice and those on Process Improvement teams. Participate in data collection and as we will learn later, the follow up analysis and problem solving steps. Finally volunteer to help implement well-thought-out solutions. Together we can all help our organizations practice improvement!
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By Craig A. Stevens, PMP, ACS
[i] Ellen Taylor-Powell and Marcus Renner, Analyzing Qualitative Data, 2003, as published by the University of Wisconsin- http://learningstore.uwex.edu/assets/pdfs/g3658-12.pdf (Downloaded 2012-08-15)