The Improvement Guide

Posted on Friday, March 20th, 2020

One of my favorite books is “The Improvement Guide,” by five authors who were all closely connected to and influenced by W. Edwards Deming back in the day. I notice that a new edition also has an additional author. I have a first edition published in 1996 that I purchased in 2000. (Sometimes I will buy the new edition of a favorite book – Schwarz’s “The Skilled Facilitator,” Block’s “Flawless Consulting” and, of course, Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline.”) I don’t know what’s different about the new edition of “The Improvement Guide,” but the original has served me well and been a key influence in my thinking about how to intervene in complex systems. In my view, anyone working in any kind of “change management” or quality assurance role should have this book close by. The language is clear and easy to understand and apply. Again, in my view.

The subtitle is “A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance.” This is true! These authors, all quality managers and/or statisticians, offer a simple but powerful model that elaborates slightly on the PLAN – DO – STUDY – ACT cycle. The “Model for Improvement” consists of three questions and the PDSA cycle. The three fundamental questions are: What are we trying to accomplish? How will we know that a change is an improvement? What are some changes we can make that will result in improvement? In practice, these questions can be answered in any order, depending on the situation. “The PDSA cycle is a vehicle for learning and action. Three ways to use the cycle as part of an improvement effort are to 1) build knowledge to help answer any one of the three questions, 2) to test a change, 3) to implement a change.” The book burrows down deeply into the methodologies and skills and mindset needed to use this model to good effect. It truly is an “improvement guide.”

A wonderful feature of this book is the Appendix: “A Resource Guide to Change Concepts.” This is a list of 70 “change concepts” sorted into nine groups by similarity. For example, the group “Eliminate Waste” contains the first 11 change concepts (e.g., recycle or reuse, use substitution, match the amount to the need). Another group, “Manage Variation,” includes such change concepts as stop tampering, standardization, and improve predictions. And that’s not all! The authors describe each of the change concepts in further detail and give three examples drawn from different kinds of situations (e.g., service, manufacturing, product development). Just reading this Appendix is a rich experience.

Interestingly (to me), the term “lean” is not found in the book’s index. This book is based on W. Edwards Deming’s System of Profound Knowledge. In the Preface, the authors write: “This book is for people who want to make improvements – or more specifically, those who realize that making effective changes in how businesses are run is a matter of survival. Change is occurring so rapidly in our society today [sound familiar?] that we have no choice but to embrace this change and make it work in our favor.”