Capturing Improvement Needs

in Improvement Science, Quality as a Business Strategy (QBS), Systems, Tools & Methods

by David M. Williams, Ph.D.

How many times have you heard someone say, “this always happens” or “this happened to me before?” Every organization has improvement opportunities, but when quality is your strategy, you need a system to fix problems on the spot when possible or capture the problem in a structured way and add it to a pipeline for future improvement.

What’s an issue you can fix on the spot? These are issues isolated to your work area. A specific task or process you have direct responsibility for or is owned by your workgroup or area. The localized nature makes the issue easier to be fixed. If you can make the fix with minimal additional input and it doesn’t take much time, go for it. If not, capture the issue and get it on the agenda of the next weekly meeting to plan how to fix it.

Many issues cannot be fixed locally; the process owner is outside of your area or department or the fix is not isolated to your area and solutions require considering additional factors or multiple stakeholders. Having an effective system to collect issues is critical. This information is mapped to where in the system the change needs to happen and the process owners can either prioritize the issue for improvement or make it ready for future improvement planning processes.

Seeing problems in practice and wishing a method existed to surface and share them with the people who can fix them was a motivation of Dr. Gregory Jacobson. An emergency physician at an academic health center in Austin, Texas, he was regularly seeing opportunities to improve his work but there was no system to gather and share it. This inspiration led him to start a software company called KaiNexus. An app on staff phones allows staff to quickly click a picture, describe a problem, and categorize it. The issue is then directed to the proper process owner for improvement. 

It’s one thing to see an issue, but what’s helpful information to collect and submit to support a system for improvement? It doesn’t take a lot of detail, but there are a few helpful elements.

  • What is the issue? 
  • What detail can you share about this event that helps us understand the issue?
  • What do you recommend as the fix?
  • Is fixing it urgent?

Organizations with a systems view of their processes can take it a step further and identify the processes or products the issue is linked to. This information is submitted electronically using a simple form or an existing knowledge management system. New submissions are reviewed regularly and issues requiring immediate attention are prioritized for intervention. The remaining issues are gathered and organized as inputs to the organization’s planning process.

Muhammed Ali said, “It’s not the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out, it’s the pebbles in your shoes.” Every leader and staff member wants to do their best work and continuously improve. Unresolved issues create waste, drag, and hinder will. Feeling powerless to affect change hurts culture. Developing a system to capture issues and surface them for improvement makes it easier for all of us to contribute to making our organizations better.

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Note: The details for gathering information are adapted from “Obtaining information.” in Associates in Process Improvement (1998). Quality as a business strategy. Austin, TX: API Austin and a conversation with Jane Norman, PKP Inc.