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Challenge Your Assumptions about the Process

Continuous Improvement

Mark Woeppel - May 10, 2013

To increase output, whether in a disaster or in everyday pressures, you must challenge your assumptions to find solutions.  Usually, the solution is not obvious (otherwise, it would have been implemented, right?), so you have to dig deeper.  Challenging assumptions helps us see where we can change the process.  There is still more to get out of your process.  Oh yes – it’s still free.

When our consultants find something blocking the process, we use a simple technique to find the hidden assumption(s).  We’re not challenging every assumption, just the ones that create situations that block us from where we’re going.  It does involve asking the question, “Why?”.  Sometimes we ask it 5 times.  But asking “why?” just tells us the “reasons”, not always the assumptions.

A couple of words about assumptions – we’re all familiar with the word game played when someone says “assume” (for those that aren’t aware of that, when you make an assumption, it makes an ass|u|me), but that’s not what I’m talking about here (although I do agree with that statement).  I think of assumptions as a person’s basic understandings of how things work.  This is useful for thinking in terms of cause and effect.  For example, the cause, “I kick you in the shins” will likely result in an effect like, “you will be angry”.  Not very hard, but the assumptions I make in this situation could be, “you don’t like being kicked in the shins” or “your feelings will be hurt by an attack on your person” (actually, this latter statement has another assumption, “when people’s feelings are hurt, they react with anger”.  Each of our processes has causes to create effects.  Sometimes, we don’t like the effects, so, if we want to change them, we should dig into the assumptions around these cause and effect relationships.

In a process, assumptions take the form of management rules (Why are we doing that?  We’ve always done it that way!), understanding of technical process (we have to put a 15 degree radius to allow for a subsequent step), quality requirements (inspection steps), or product specification requirements (dimensions or features).  These are baseline parameters of how the process functions and its boundary conditions.  Most of these are important and needed.  However, over time, these rules and requirements can become like barnacles on our process, no longer needed and slowing down the process.

Our goal is to find the assumptions that are erroneous.  An erroneous assumption is the rule, requirement, or boundary condition that is no longer required. (Why are we doing that?  I don’t know! We’ve always done it that way!).  The only way to find those assumptions is to zero in on the blockages and ask why certain requirements (the ones that are slowing you down) are necessary.

The process we use to find and challenge assumptions is to simply ask why and identify the assumptions that are no longer valid or could be made invalid.  Meaning, not every assumption is a fixed thing.  We can change things around.  Some are not valid in every situation – do we need to take this step for every product or just for specific customers?  Do those policies still apply in this situation?  Can I get the policy changed?  Can I find a different way to satisfy the requirement other than the one in place?

Containment boom on the waterTake, for example, Pinnacle Strategies’ work during the Gulf Oil spill.  When we were working with boom manufacturers, our consultants went to several boom manufacturers to find more capacity.  The companies usually had rigorous specifications from their customers, as the quality requirements were support usage for many years.  However, we wanted as much boom as possible, in as short of time as possible, for a short burst of intensive work.  The companies were building heavy duty products designed to meet a wide variety of situations.  The boom that was needed was for a specific environment, with specific requirements, for a short period of time.  Some features could be left out, thus reducing the time to manufacture and thus releasing extra capacity to make more.

This is our experience over and over.  There is ALWAYS more capacity than you think.  You just have to do a little digging and challenge your assumptions.

Read more about how we achieved great results by challenging the assumptions in lesson 4 in our eBook, Achieving Top Performance Under the Worst Conditions: 7 Lessons Learned from a Disaster.

As always if, you have questions or comments please feel free to contact me by emailing me.

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