Five Steps to Successful Process Improvement

There is a famous quotation attributed to Albert Einstein that goes, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”  While that makes sense when you think about it, if you think a little longer, that becomes a very frightening thought.  Usually, to solve a problem, we try to “do” something that’s different – either trying a new product or service – or “do” something we’ve always been doing a little differently.  It’s difficult to “think” differently.

If you’re familiar with my Web site posts or books, you’ve probably read that I believe one of the reasons we experience the problems we do is based on how we were taught to think.  Research shows that even though teachers are trained in pedagogy, learning styles, and educational strategies, most teachers adopt the teaching style of their favorite teacher when they were in school.  The Scientific Method is the basis of any research performed in the healthcare field.  There is always a “process” to follow – formulate a hypothesis, then research and test until the hypothesis is either proven or disproven.  Conclusions are then used to formulate a more refined hypothesis, and the process continues until a method is determined to solve the problem.  We are taught to think “linearly” – where every answer builds upon the last.  Linear thinking leads to processes, which has created “process thinking.”

It’s not that linear thinking is bad.  The problem with a problem (the “metaproblem,” if you will) is that if a problem created by linear thinking can’t be solved with linear thinking, then what kind of thinking is necessary.  Process thinking?  That’s what was behind the industrial revolution and the development of the assembly line.  But now, process thinking doesn’t solve problems either.  It can only improve on current practices already in place.  Since we’re really not taught any other way of thinking, what do we have to do?  This is where systems thinking is essential for solving today’s problems.

What’s interesting to note is that we’ve been aware of systems thinking; we’ve just never identified and articulated it.

One of the realizations of systems thinking is that all components in a system have to be present for the system to work.  If there is a missing or non-functioning component, then the system doesn’t function properly.  We’ve come to know this phenomenon as “dysfunctional.”  Notice that there is no dysfunction in a linear process.  If there’s an impediment to the process, the process stops…or slows to a crawl…until the impediment is removed.  With process thinking, the impediment is improved, or a new linear path (a detour) is created.

Think of your computer’s connection to the Internet.  It may be connected, but no data is being exchanged because there’s something that’s prohibiting the flow of data across your broadband connection.  With process thinking, you may be able to connect wirelessly through WiFi.  But with systems thinking, by being aware of all the elements of a system, you may be able to connect through your mobile phone, using it as a hotspot, or through a different port on your router.  Thinking about all parts of the system helps to solve a linear and process problem.

I get excited by writers like Daniel Pink that challenge conventional thought, and by texts like The Challenger Sale that encourage “cognitive dissonance” to get people out of their “status quo” rut because they don’t like or fear change. The fact of the matter is that if you don’t like the results you’re getting, some kind of change is necessary. It’s why I created a presentation called “Shift,” since a shift is indeed a change, yet it doesn’t sound as threatening as change, and because change is always thought of in the “macro” sense.

One of the main flaws with any type of change is that we want to “do” things.  From the time we’re young, we hear, “Don’t just sit there…DO something” when it’s perceived that we’re “wasting time” by not “doing” anything, when, in reality, we may have been thinking about a way to solve a persistent problem.  Not only are we compelled to “do” things,  but our training pushes us to do them “One step at a time.” With any new tool, product or service, there is an “Implementation Process” that must take place when a change happens.  Educators are well aware of this fact since everything requires some type of training, and more and more, training in multiple sessions – just like the student’s classroom experience!  It’s the place where corporate trainers got the idea of scaffolding, spaced repetition and independent reinforcement (aka, “Homework”).

The problem with any type of teaching or training is that it’s linear (step by step), and a process (the steps must be followed in a particular order).  This is great for left-brained people, while right-brained folks might want to try it first, then go to the training manual, start in the middle, or use the index to find what they need to get to, rather than following the chapter-at-a-time three-volume manual that has been prepared to master the new product or service.

Want proof?   If you own a car, think of the last time you read your car’s owner’s manual cover to cover before driving it.  If you haven’t read it, it’s not that it’s difficult reading.  It’s written at a 4th grade reading level.  If you have viewed it, you’ve probably searched the index to find out why the car door never seems to lock, or what the strange red light that looks like Aladdin’s Lamp on your dashboard means. It’s hardly ever read as a textbook or an instruction manual.  Speaking of cars, they provide a great example of systems in action. If you have ever had a bad spark plug, your car will get there, but the drive won’t be a pleasant one.

Speaking of systemically, it’s not enough to recommend just moving to a systems thinking model.  Just as process thinking builds on linear thinking, systems thinking also needs process thinking as its foundation.  It’s not just one thing that’s necessary, but an additional level of architecture, if you will.  This provides a third level of complexity, but all three levels work together to create its own system.

As for process thinking, here’s a “metaprocess” (the process of a process) for process improvement in 5 easy-to-remember steps. Remembering is the first step to understanding, as we’ll never understand something if we don’t remember key foundational components (the essence of scaffolding). Rather than an acronym as a mnemonic device, just remember they all start with each of the 5 vowels:

1. Open – to a new way of thinking

2. Accept – a proposed solution

3. Understand – everyone involved must buy in to the proposed solution

4. Implement – the proposed solution with as little deviation as possible

5. Evaluate – the solution’s effectiveness and propose adjustments

Usually, the first step is the hardest one. How do you get people to be “open” to something new? If you’re a teacher, you must be adept at it, because it’s your task to do that with every student every day. Challenging someone’s way of thinking, or causing “cognitive dissonance,” is one way it can happen. But an even more effective way is to also cause “affective dissonance,” or “kinesthetic dissonance.” Dissonance is the realization that one’s currently formed mindset is being challenged by new information. Similarly, “affective dissonance” can be described as “mixed emotions.” “Kinesthetic dissonance” happens when one’s job responsibilities are adjusted, the physical demands of a job change, or even when one is employed in an occupation that relies on “shifts,” working daylight for a few days, then having to switch to overnight, or working one day for 12 hours and the next for 8, or worse, combining the two because, as some supervisors and scheduler would say, “That way, the schedule is fair to everyone.”

One must be personally effected for one to be open to the potential that something new is better than what’s currently in place. Then and only then can the process continue onward through “transition” to a successful “transformation.”

© Michael V. Ziemski, SchoolAdvancement, 2012-2018