Grasping the Current Condition

This week we are going to be talking about grasping the current condition. 

This is part 2 of a 4 part series that we are doing on Improvement Kata.


What does it mean to grasp the current condition?


It means that you are developing a thorough understanding of what is happening in reality before you start actually making changes or improvements.


The fact is we all make assumptions, we all have biases, sometimes we are aware of it, sometimes we are not. This is why it makes so much sense to make sure that you fully grasp the current condition before you try to enact a future condition.


What are the three characteristics of the current condition?


#1 It shows a pattern. If you can see a pattern and you can see a consistency of what happened in the past, it allows you to predict what is most likely to happen in the future. Obviously, there is not 100% prediction, nobody has that gift, but the reality is that if you have a good understanding of what happened in the past there is a good chance you can predict what is likely to happen in the future. If you can predict the future accurately you can create a future that is more in line with the future you want for your company. 


#2 It’s measurable. We’ve all heard the expression, what gets measured gets managed. If you can’t measure it, you probably can’t manage it. 


#3 It is fact-based.  If you are getting information, facts, details and they don’t seem to align with the things that you do know, then there is a chance that you need to investigate further to try to understand the current condition. 


Why is it important to grasp the current condition?


#1 It validates the severity of the problem. It helps you to assess how big of a problem this is. Are there other problems that are way bigger? How much time, effort, and other resources should we invest in solving the problem? 

What you don’t want to develop is a million-dollar solution for a ten dollar problem. You want to scale the size of the solution to the size of the problem and you also don’t want to develop other solutions that create other problems for you.


#2 It enables more productive problem-solving. Fully grasping the current condition helps you conduct a better root cause analysis. It allows you to establish some of those critical cause and effect relationships so that you can start to get an understanding of how does what I am seeing relates to other things that are happening in the business. It should give you a more upstream and downstream perspective. You want to understand how what is happening in the process steps before is affecting the process step being investigated, and also how that the things going on here are affecting things further on downstream. So you can establish some of those true cause and effect relationships. Also, you don’t want to start making changes yet, you are not in the problem-solving phase yet, you’re just analyzing. You don’t want to make changes in this step that are going to have major implications and repercussions either downstream or upstream, you want to make sure that you get the full perspective here. 


#3. It helps you eliminate all your false assumptions and biases. Sometimes we know just enough to be dangerous. Secondly and just as important, it helps you understand what is a realistic target condition? What is it that we can realistically achieve and in what timeframe can we achieve that? If your current condition is in total chaos and shambles, then you want to be a little more conservative with your target condition, what you think that you can achieve in a given timeframe. If your current condition is stable and organized, if it is a good process that is already in place and mature, then perhaps, you can be a little bit more ambitious in what you can achieve in your target condition because you have the environment to do that. 


What are the best practices in grasping the current condition?


When you are grasping the current condition, you want to gather a sufficient amount of both qualitative and quantitative information, facts, and data about the problem or the area being addressed before you start making any improvements. 


I got some excellent practices to help you do that.


#1. Go see for yourself. Seeing is believing. There is a unique way in which only you can see things, that by you going to Gemba and seeing for yourself you are going to see things that no one else can see. Obviously you are going to see things that data won’t tell you. You are going to see things that people can’t tell you over the phone, things you can’t get in a 10-15 minute conversation. Go see for yourself, the quality of information you gather from that type of experience is priceless. 

When you go see, make sure you spend a sufficient amount of time at the Gemba. You are really looking at how much variation there is from output to output of the process you are trying to improve. 


#2. Data analysis. The thing you want to get right here is to obtain a statistically significant sample size. Again, it is all based on the amount of variability in the process. If you have a high degree of variability, you need more data. When I was at school, I was taught us that you wanted at least 30 samples, generally speaking. In some cases that is not feasible, and in some cases it is easy to get several months of data. The more data the better, the more realistic the output. In general, you just want to make sure that if there is a high degree of variability you need more data points and if it is fairly reliable and predictable, based on a small data set then you have a high degree of confidence and you can get by with fewer data points. 


#3. Make it visual. By making things visual, by using parato charts, by using pie charts, by using trend charts, you can see the information in ways you would not be able to see if you are just looking at a spreadsheet with tables and columns. It also helps people to get on the same page as you because everybody is looking at something similar. 


#4. Interviewing people. You got to get close to the people that are close to the situation, they have the broadest, real-life experience, data set for you to work with, and that data is stored in their minds. Sometimes we call that legacy knowledge. The only way to tap into that database is by interviewing them. 

You also want to get a broad perspective of people who might be connected to the situation or the area that you are looking to address, for example, you want folks from upstream, you want folks from downstream, you want to support people, you want managers and of course, if you have two or three people that do the same job, you want all of them to get their input and understand what they are experiencing with the situation. A point to call here is that the reason you want to do this and make sure you are taking all of these techniques and applying them to grasp the current situation, is that you want to make sure that you are addressing the right problem, you do not want to spend an exorbitant amount of resources and time and effort just to find out later on that the thing you fixed is irrelevant and it might have even fixed itself if you would’ve addressed this other huge elephant in the room problem that is still out there and that is still causing damage to your business. 


#5 No one of these methods is sufficient. Going to Gemba is great but without the data, without the historicals, sometimes you can miss the cycles and businesses operate in cycles, processes operate in cycles. Going to Gemba, getting a snapshot there is a good chance you won’t be able to spend the amount of time and effort and notice every detail that is taking place, it is great to have great data systems in place, such as for example, that can give you a trendline for the last year, the last six months, or the last quarter so you can draw some more insights from that information as well. 

But again, data analysis alone won’t give you the full picture and neither will be interviewing. You should all 5, that will give you the multidimensional point of view that you need to fully grasp the current condition. 


Here is a little trick you can do. Assing an objective completely unattached third party to go in and perform the investigation, just see what they come up with. A lot of times the people who are attached to the problem tend to have some type of bias in place or tend to have some other political motivations involved with their idea of this reality or this potential solution. Put a third party in there with no affiliations, let them go in, let them assess the situation, you’ll be surprised at what they might find. 


Tips for getting better at grasping the current condition


#1 Assume you have a bias. In fact, you can use this experience to uncover some of your own biases by forming a hypothesis right before you go in, write down what you think the problem is, or what you think the current reality is before you actually go in and investigate the current condition.


#2 Validate your findings before acting. After you perform your investigation of the reality after you feel that you fully grasp your current condition, you’ve gone to Gemba, you analyzed the data, you performed the interviews, you’ve talked to people; now put all that information together, draw your conclusions about your reality of the current state, and then socialize it. Get folks involved with the process, get the managers of the process involved, get the support teams involved, and just socialize what you found and see if their experiences have been consistent with what you think is going on. 

#3 Don’t forget to go see for yourself, don’t take somebody else’s word for it. 

There is no substitute for your own experience of seeing it for yourself. Of course, the data and the interviews can help pressure test and help bring more context to what you saw but there is no substitute for going and seeing for yourself.

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