A control or feedback loop is central to any self-regulating and continuously improving system. You may have heard it described as the PDCA Cycle, or Plan, Do, Check, Act. I actually prefer a variant: Plan, Do, Check, Adjust. It implies that corrective action or continuous improvement is part of the cycle. Since PDCA may be a bit removed from the day-to-day, let’s try to apply it to an operations improvement project environment. To do this, we can expand the PDCA cycle into a more actionable, effective set of steps:
- Determine what and how to measure – this is a topic unto itself; I’ll expand on this in the future
- Measure baselines and set goals – understanding how much improvement is possible takes practice
- Implement monitoring mechanisms while conducting the project – make measurement part of the future state process
- Assign ownership to processes and their metrics – process owners are not meant to enforce compliance, however*
- Compare performance to the goal and reset the bar – remember that ‘kaizen’ means continuous improvement
*An important note on managing process improvement long term: creating another report and assigning a supervisor or manager to monitor it is not the same as control. Don’t miss this. We have seen world-class Six Sigma shops run projects that err by assigning someone the responsibility for ensuring that new, better results are maintained. It’s not an effective ‘Control’ phase of a project. In any organization, especially ones that are continuously improving, supervisors and managers have only so much attention span. Gains are quickly lost if they must rely solely on a person’s attention for monitoring compliance – self-regulating processes are vital to true stair-step improvements.
Ideally, process control is achieved through visual management techniques such as poka yoke. In many corporate or administrative environments, management reports and scorecards are the best tool we have. This means that with process change come changes to our management practices. When the project is complete, a new process is in place, and new measurements have become part of the management process without adding to the management burden.
That’s closing the loop.