Minimum Viable Improvements
Most people will by now have heard of the MVP, the Minimum Viable Product. It's the smallest functioning version of what you want to build or ultimately deliver to your customer but perhaps with limited features, sometimes it's a part of it, sometimes it's a dummy version with someone behind the curtain pulling the strings. Ultimately though it's put out there for people to test and give feedback on, if it did this or if it did that then it would be better, or I don't like how it does this for example. This is the world of Agile or the lean startup where the aim is to quickly move from idea to something that can be tested in the real world to gauge customer response to it, will it meet their needs? Would they pay money for it?
When we think about things in a continuous improvement or lean environment then it begs the question is it possible to have a minimum viable improvement approach to what you do? Is this in fact what Mike Rother has ultimately created with his Toyota Kata approach?
It functions as Intended not as Required
As engineers, and I still count myself as one, the training that we get is about delivering a solution, we look at the problem, scope it out and then deliver the solution that is required. We do it once and hopefully we do it right. It's just well, it can take a little time can't it? The other challenge is that sometimes when we do come back with the solution, it's not exactly what people were expecting, it'll probably do the job but just not in the way they thought, or life has moved on and the solution that would have worked a few weeks or months ago is no longer of any use. This also gives rise the phrase, it functions as intended, just not as required highlighting the miss-match perhaps in communicating those expectations and needs.
The other thing that can happen is the virtual paralysis that kicks in trying to get the whole system perfect, it has to be 100% right when actually 80% right is going to deliver 95% of the solution. The continual reworking of the design, the back and forth within he design thinking, perhaps there is a 3d mock up or a dummy version that never leaves the design room or there endless rounds of scope definitions and drawings. The resulting delays then result in on going frustration and more costs.
The Toyota Kata Approach
The Toyota Kata approach is simple, figure out what the ultimate goal is – what is the problem you want to solve, understand where you are now, figure out what the next step is on the journey, the next target condition which is really the smallest step you can take with certainty and then experiment your way to achieve that next step knowing as you go that, because they are experiments, then some will work out and some won't. Once you reach your planned next step, review it, understand where it is vs what you want (i.e. understand your new current condition) pick a new step and start all over again, pretty much the perfect PDCA framework.
The Minimum Viable Improvement
So what if we take this Toyota Kata approach and set some points on the journey that said OK by this iteration we need to hand over something that we can test out in reality, for a period of time, and see what level of improvement we get. What if, for example you are looking for a way to consistently align 2 parts and hold them in place (I'm keeping it simple) there are lots of things you can do but would the MVI (minimum viable Improvement) be a wooden or even a cardboard template to figure out what the critical parts to the alignment process is? Would you use a simple clamp to hold it in place? Ok so now we have a working prototype of your improvement what's the next experiment you can do to develop the next MVI? Can you deliver it within a day? 2 days? Can you improve the alignment consistency or the ease of use, do you focus on the clamping mechanism and improve just that part?
It's not unusual to come up with a solution that doesn't quite hit the mark, that's what continuous improvement is about. The challenge is getting something, almost anything out there that will get you some feedback quickly on if you are heading in the right direction and that you have captured the requirements of the users of your solution correctly. Even your 1st step improvement may make a 50 or 80% improvement over the current situation, but even more than that it'll show those involved in the process that they are being listened too and can make the improvements. By not waiting till you get perfection, by testing out something and asking for the feedback you increase the engagement of those involved in the situation as well, the users, the customers so the next step is going to be even better.
The Questions to Think About
In your continuous improvement program are you moving as quickly with improvements as you could be? Are you losing momentum (and engagement!) by taking too long to just try something out? What would it take for you to step by and come up with a Minimum Viable Improvement, something you can just put out there and test to see how it works? Can you accept the thought of putting something less than perfect out and that you will get feedback of where it isn't meeting the needs?
If you could do those things, what would it mean to the pace of your improvement activities?
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