Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Want to improve? Identify the process!

Contrary to what self-help gurus would have you believe, making improvements is not all about positive thinking and the laws of attraction. Improvement is actually a little more mundane. Yes, you have to be motivated to improve, and yes you have to be determined to see your project through, but there are some pretty simple steps to making improvements – either in business or elsewhere.

Firstly the activity must be enumerated, so that the process is spelt out in black and white. Only then will anyone have half a chance to improve it. If you don’t or won’t figure out the process, then it will be different every time and any performance improvement will be temporary or coincidental.

Atul Gawande was highlighted in The Times yesterday for his work in getting surgeons to adopt a checklist (The doctor taking safety to new heights – January 25 2010, The Times). Checklists reduce mistakes and stress, and provide a foundation for improvement. Whilst the idea can hardly be classed as revolutionary, it is telling how much resistance he is facing. With many intellectual activities, there is reluctance to “reduce” work to a number of steps or a checklist. The emotional reaction is that it somehow lessons the importance of the person or their experience, which, of course, is very far from the truth. In fact, it provides the basis for excellent work to be done, and "silly" mistakes to be avoided.

There is always scope for improvement, even with the simplest of jobs. There is often even more scope for improvement with complex activities. But the first step is always to figure out what the process is, so that the team can think about whether that really is the best way of doing things.

Atul Gawande has written a whole book about checklists, which is in itself eye-opening. It’s published on Thursday and is called The Checklist Manifesto.

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