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The Ying and Yang of Process Improvement


All of us have been asked to solve a problem at one time or another. Many times, the “solution” may be obvious (at least to us or our sponsors), but when it gets implemented, it creates many more problems than the one we were trying to solve.

Why does this happen? Why does the solution cause more issues?

While there can be many reasons for these outcomes, let me share an approach that has significantly increased my effectiveness at both diagnosing and resolving problems, or opportunities while minimizing additional issues. I have used this throughout my 30-year process improvement career, and it brings me to a better understanding of root cause and creating more effective solutions. It is a simple concept, but many times we tend to focus on one method or the other, and not integrate the thinking together. Remember that the Ying/Yang is about dualism, i.e. how opposite or contrary forces can be complementary.

In this case, the “Ying” is the systemic view. I rely heavily on the methods and tools from the “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” by Peter Senge et. al. that I learned back in the 1990s.

The authors hypothesized that there are 5 “disciplines” to become an effective learning organization: systems thinking, shared vision, team building, personal mastery and mental models.

Two of these disciplines (systems thinking and mental models) form the basis for the systems view. Let me explain both briefly:

  • Systems thinking is about seeing and valuing the whole (being holistic), reflecting on the set of interdependencies (e.g. process, living systems, mental models), and how to understand intended and unintended consequences.
  • A mental model is your “view” or perspective of the world based on your values, experiences and assumptions. Everyone’s mental models tend to be different, even if they’re looking at the same events or outcomes.

So how do these concepts apply to process improvement?

Well, you’ve heard of the saying “losing the forest through the tree”; likewise, if your mental model on process improvement is to quickly drill down on the problem to get to the elemental process or technology issue without considering the whole system, then your improvements are likely to have a small impact but potentially cause problems up or downstream from the solution. If you take a system view first, understand the mental models at play, and how processes, people, technology and policies are interdependent, you begin to understand where the “higher leverage” intervention points can occur.

A few years ago, I was tasked to find out the root cause of overpaying claims interest project for a health care provider. Management immediately put pressure on the claims team to “fix their process”, but when the team stepped back, mapped out the relationships between functions and analyzed the data, we quickly found out that the one of the primary root causes was upstream of claims, not in claims. As a result, the team identified ways to save over $5M in a six-month period by implementing fixes both upstream and in the claims area. So, focusing on the “Ying” side of improvement can make your solutions much more impactful and sustainable.

However, don’t assume that systems thinking is the only thing you need to do for process improvement. At some point, you do need to drill down and apply the standard improvement methods such as lean or six sigma (the “Yang”).

The step many improvement teams miss is linking this detailed analysis back to the system level and to anticipate unintended consequences of their solutions up and downstream from where it is applied. My recommendation is to always start with the systems view first before breaking the problem into pieces.

Too many times, the improvement sponsor and the improvement expert jump to conclusions about root cause and solutions without considering other related functions or processes. This wastes time, creates negative perspectives from the participants when they still see problems after the solution is implemented, and can cause the team to lose sponsorship.

So, the next time you are asked to improve something and/or identify some potential causes, think about how you can integrate the “Ying/Yang” or the system thinking and lean/six sigma together. Your outcomes and solutions will become more effective and viable over the long term. As a side benefit, you may start to be viewed as the “person behind the curtain” with your improved insights and understanding of complex systems.