Tag Archives: process improvement

Seeing What Makes Processes Tick

Daniel Weil is a partner of Pentagram and a Senior Fellow of the Royal College of Art.  Daniel has been working as an architect and designer since 1977 and his projects have included products, packaging, interiors and art direction for such companies as Swatch, Lego, and United Airlines.  Recently, Daniel was privately commissioned to create a gift for an architect.  The result was a one-of-a-kind clock that is both simple and complex and reflects his interest in investigating not only how objects look, but how they work.

“Objects like clocks are both prosaic and profound,” says Weil.  “Prosiac because of their ubiquity in everyday life, profound because of the mysterious nature of time itself. Time can be reduced to hours, minutes and seconds, just as a clock can be reduced to its component parts. This doesn’t explain time, but in a way simply exposes its mysterious essence.”

In addition to being a functional work of art, the clock represents a great example of the role visual management should play in process improvement.  While good visual systems don’t explain every detail of a process, they should allow a team see how a process works in real time and help “expose its mysterious essence.”  Further, by designing visual management systems which allow the team to see and easily interact with the inner workings of a process, it becomes easier to maintain, repair and improve the process as needed.

Like Weil’s clock, visuals should help explain, very simply, and elegantly, what make’s the process tick.  When done well, the blend of visual displays, visual controls and systems design give the team the opportunity to easily see the nuts and bolts of a process as they work the process.  Armed with the ability to “see” the process and its problems, teams are better able to both understand what impedes productivity as well as suggest ideas for improvement.

Contrary to the old saying, when it comes to visually management, I don’t just want to know what time it is…I want to know how to build the watch.

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Discovery-Based Implementation

In his work as an educational theorist, John Dewey believed that discovery-based education yielded the best learning.  By allowing learners to connect with information through participation and experimentation they engaged more fully and identified new ideas and conceptual patterns through the interaction.  In addition, the brain activity is heightened when the information presented is slightly ambiguous rather than explicit.  By leaving “gaps” in the information and some “fuzziness” in the details, you encourage the learner to use their brains to fill in the blanks.  By doing this, their creativity and imagination is sparked and the learner is better able to catalogue and retrieve information easily in the future.

I believe the same principles apply when engaging people in process improvement.  If your goal is to create a culture of continuous improvement, it is critical to structure the environment and daily processes to promote discovery-based learning.  Similar to Dewey’s findings in education, the key to driving high levels of creativity, initiative, and ownership in the improvement process is to leave the details of the plan “fuzzy” and create opportunities for people to struggle and identify new ways to accomplish organizational goals.  The trick is to allow people the time, resources and latitude to take ownership of the issues, tinker with new process possibilities and discover how creative they can be.  The tradeoff for allowing people the opportunity to discover their own solutions, is that you create a powerful group of explorers who have confidence in their ability to take risks to accomplish stretch goals while at the same time learning at an exponential rate.

One of the difficulties in implementing this approach to learning, is finding the right balance between being crystal clear about your expectations for results while at the same time being ambiguous enough to allow the learner to take ownership of the details and exercise autonomy in the creation process.  While I have yet to achieve a perfect balance, I think it is wise err on the side of allowing people to struggle with ambiguity rather than rest in clarity.

“The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.” – John Dewey