Don’t start by thinking outside of the box!

inside-the-boxSo often in my lean journey I have heard, and admittedly said, “we need to think outside of the box”! After hearing this twice this week I started reflecting on “what is the box” and “what’s inside that’s so bad”?

As an improvement leader I am guilty of challenging teams to think in creative and new ways without ever truly understanding what the current work standard is. The teamAi??spends almost no time understanding the current situation, instead with our “bias toward action” approach, we jump right into brainstorming countermeasures. But what are we missing?

Dr. Stephen Covey dedicates an entire habit in his “7 Habits” book to, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Although he originally intended this to be a character trait, it is totally relevant in a process improvement environment.


If you work in any field that employs procedures (ISO, AS, PS/QS, cGMP..others) you most likely have buried somewhere in your procedure tree how most processes “should work”. In most organizations I have seen, and I’ve seen many, these documents are drafted by someone in a quality, engineering, or other technical role who have particular knowledge of how the ideal process should work. They are not drafted by the people actually doing the work. In general, these documents are rich in text and in content but are written to pass an audit, not to appeal to the users. Too often these procedures are filed until a week before an external audit at which time operators “cram” for the audit much like a student crams for a test. Once done with the audit, the operators blithe-fully go back to “the way we’ve always done it”. These gaps between the work standard and the current state are often overlooked in the plan phase of PDCA. We simply jump over these gaps and capture only the current state.

As improvement leaders we can start challenging ourselves before we challenge others. There is a reason that the entire left side of most A3 tools are dedicated to planning. I would encourage that homework be done early in the plan stage that defines what is “in the box” before we think of asking others to “think outside of the box”.

Below are some things to think about before going into any kind of rapid improvement project. (Note – I refer to “work standard” as any kind of documentation that supports a process or QMS. That can be standard work, standardized work, work instruction, procedure, policy, process maps, etc):

1. Is there currently an existing “work standard”?
2. If multiple “work standards” are there conflicts between them?
3. Who wrote the “work standard” and what special insight does that person have in the equipment or the process?
4. What is supposed to happen and what is the expected outcome?
5. Can the “work standard” be easily reviewed and understood? Is it all text? Is there a lot of jargon? Think “User Friendly”.
6. How is “work standard” being communicated and used? Only when changed? Part of daily work? Posted in area?
7. What are the operators doing differently?
8. Most importantly WHY are they doing things differently?
9. Why/what is causing this gap? Is there a system breakdown that they have to create a work-around for? Where does method break down?
10. How are we measuring whether the current situation is effective or not?
11. How can we measure the effectiveness of the “work standard”?

I hope that my reflections on what I can improve on in the planning process helps others think about their own planning process.Ai??What do your teams miss in the planning process?


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