Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Building a culture of improvement is a lot like riding a bike

Leading process improvement projects is both frustrating and rewarding. As many of my colleagues can attest, this is no easy job. You need to get things done, sometimes very big things, even though you are “not in charge”.

If we didn’t have a passion for process improvement most of us would probably have quit long ago and tried to find a less strenuous job.  Whenever I’m faced with a challenging project or resistant team member I think of raising kids. It can be the most difficult and trying time of your life, dealing with temper tantrums, poor friend choices, sibling rivalry, etc… but as the kids get older and show confidence in who they are you start letting go because you can see the growth and they can make you proud.   

Facilitating and coaching projects sometimes feels a lot like raising kids. You deal with teaching them how to “play together nicely”, how to accept “rules” aka standardization, and how think of others needs not just their own needs. There is nothing like that satisfying moment during a project when you see the light bulb go on for team members. When you notice that the group of individuals who at first, wouldn’t even look at each other, are now true teammates working together to achieve their mutual objectives – It can be the best part of your day.   

I was recently involved in a project with our Hospitals surgical department which included our sterile process group (the folks who assemble, sterilize, and deliver medical instruments).  We have been collecting loads of data and doing a lot of work to map the process and to understand some of the defects. One quick idea we came up with was to start using a root cause analysis (RCA) form. Previous to the RCA form problems were not documented, we just resolved them and moved on and of course the inevitable happened, the same problem keep reoccurring.

A few days after we started using the form it was put to good use because we had several big problems that cropped up. I ran into the Sterile Process supervisor in the hallway and she explained to me, that when she received the RCA form she immediately took the form to the assemblers since they needed to determine root cause of that particular issue. I was a bit surprised because in the past she or the manager would solve the issue and smooth over any ruffled feathers with the nurses and surgeons; hardly mentioning the problem to the assembly team.  However, she inherently knew that that was part of the problem and with this new process she needed to get her assembly team directly involved. and get them to solve the problem - She wasn’t going to give them the answer.  Her team was a bit put-off because in the past they didn’t have to get involved; the supervisor solved the problem and smoothed over the ruffled feathers with the operating room personnel. All of a sudden this simple form was creating a different attitude and developing important accountability. Thank goodness the supervisor was sharp enough to realize the appropriate approach; of course, I like to think my coaching influenced her actions. She pushed the team and they worked on a permanent solution so the problem was unlikely to repeat.

After she told me about the RCA and related team work I had a good feeling about the work I had been doing with this team.  I guess it’s like teaching your kids to ride a bike.. At first you steadied them, yelled encouragement, and explained the balance thing and comforted them when they fell. But in the end they needed to take the initiative and go for the “big ride”. Before you knew what happened they gained confidence and started riding faster and further, gaining independence in the process even if it sometimes gave you anxiety pangs. They were growing up and making more of their own decisions.

Helping an organization develop a culture of continuous improvement is sometimes discouraging and stressful but when the kids start maturing you sure do feel proud.

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