There is a “universal sequence for quality improvement,” according to the illustrious Joseph M. Juran, that defines the actions to be taken by any team to effect change. This includes teams pursuing error- and defect-reduction initiatives, variation reduction, or quality improvement by any other description.
Two of the seven steps of the universal sequence are “journeys” that the team must take to complete its problem-solving mission. The “diagnostic journey” and the “remedial journey” comprise the core of the problem-solving process and, thus, warrant particular attention.
The Universal Sequence
The universal sequence defines a problem-solving framework, of which, the journeys are critical elements. Before embarking on discussions of the journeys, readers should be familiar with the framework and the journeys’ place in it. For this purpose, a very brief introduction to the seven steps of the universal sequence follows:
(1) Provide proof of the need. Present data and information that demonstrates the need for improvement; typically, this is translated into financial terms (e.g. scrap cost, contribution margin, etc.) for management review.
(2) Identify project(s). Define projects in terms of specific problems that create the need and link them to the breakthrough desired.
(3) Organize for improvement. Assign responsibility for high-level oversight of the improvement program (sponsors that authorize funds) and management of each project; assign team members to execute project tasks.
(4) Take the diagnostic journey. Identify the root cause of the problem to be solved.
(5) Take the remedial journey. Implement corrective action(s) to eliminate the root cause.
(6) Overcome resistance to change. Communicate with those affected by the change, encourage their participation in the transformation process, and allow them time to adjust.
(7) Sustain the improvement. Update or create new standards and monitoring and controlling systems to prevent regression.
With the framework of the universal sequence now defined, it is time for a more detailed look at the diagnostic and remedial journeys.
The Diagnostic Journey
The diagnostic journey takes a problem-solving team “from symptom to cause.” The first leg of this journey consists of understanding the symptoms of a problem by analyzing two forms of evidence. First, the team must ensure that all parties involved use shared definitions of special and common terms used to describe a situation, defect, etc. It is imperative that the words used to communicate within the team provide clarity; inconsistent use of terminology can cause confusion and misunderstanding. Second, autopsies (from Greek autopsia – “seeing with one’s own eyes”) should be conducted to deepen understanding of the situation. An autopsy can also confirm that the use of words is consistent with the agreed definition, or offer an opportunity to make adjustments in the early stages of the journey.
Understanding the symptoms allows the team to begin formulating theories about the root cause. This can be done with a simple brainstorming session or other idea-generation and collection technique. A broad array of perspectives is helpful (e.g. quality, operations, management, maintenance, etc.).
Processing a large number of theories can be simplified by organizing them in a fishbone diagram, mind map, or other format. Grouping similar or related ideas, and creating a visual representation of their interrelationships, facilitates the selection of theories to be tested and experimental design. Visualized grouping of suspect root causes aids the design of experiments that can test multiple theories simultaneously, contributing to an efficient diagnosis.
Once the investigation has successfully identified the root cause, the diagnostic journey is complete. The team must transition and embark on the remedial journey.
The Remedial Journey
The remedial journey takes the team “from cause to remedy;” it begins with the choice of alternatives. A list of alternative solutions, or remedies, should be compiled for evaluation. Remedies should be proposed considering the hierarchy (preference) or error-reduction mechanisms discussed in “Vol. II: Poka Yoke (What Is and Is Not).” All proposed remedies should satisfy the following three criteria:
To verify that a proposed remedy, in fact, eliminates the root cause, “proof-of-concept” testing should be conducted. This is done on a small scale, either in a laboratory setting or in the production environment, minimizing disruption to the extent possible. If successful on a small scale, implementation of the remedy can be ramped up in production. Successful full-scale implementation should be accompanied by updates to instructions, expanded training, and other activities required to normalize the new process or conditions.
Normalization activities taking place during the remedial journey may overlap with the last two steps of the universal sequence for quality improvement; this overlap may help to ensure that the sequence is completed. The organization can fully capitalize on the effort only when the entire sequence has been completed. Repeating the sequence is evidence of a continuous improvement culture, whether nascent or mature.
The diagnostic and remedial journeys are defined as they are to emphasize three critical, related characteristics. First, the diagnostic and remedial journeys are separate, independent endeavors. Each requires its own process to complete successfully. Second, both are required components of an effective quality-improvement or problem-solving project. Finally, the remedial journey should not commence until the diagnostic journey is complete – diagnosis precedes remedy.
These points may seem obvious or unremarkable; however, the tendency of “experts” to jump directly from symptom to remedy is too common to ignore. Doing so fails to incorporate all available evidence, allowing bias and preconceived notions to drive decisions. The danger of irrational decision-making – acting on willfully incomplete information – is a theme that runs throughout the “Making Decisions” series on “The Third Degree.”
The diagnostic and remedial journeys are also described as the core of a successful problem-solving process, but not its entirety. Each step in the universal sequence, when performed conscientiously, improves team effectiveness, increasing efficiency and probability of project success.
General questions are welcome in the comments section below. To address specific needs of your organization, please contact JayWink Solutions for a consultation.
For a directory of “The War on Error” volumes on “The Third Degree,” see “Vol. I: Welcome to the Army.”
[Link] Juran’s Quality Handbook. Joseph M. Juran et al; McGraw-Hill.
[Link] “Quality Tree: A Systematic Problem-Solving Model Using Total Quality Management Tools and Techniques.” J. N. Pan and William Kolarik; Quality Engineering, 1992.
[Link] “Shainin Methodology: An Alternative or an Effective Complement to Six Sigma?” Jan Kosina; Quality Innovation Prosperity, 2015.
[Link] “Statistical Engineering and Variation Reduction.” Stefan H. Steiner and R. Jock MacKay; Quality Engineering, 2014.
[Link] “An Overview of the Shainin SystemTM for Quality Improvement.” Stefan H. Steiner, R. Jock MacKay, and John S. Ramberg; Quality Engineering, 2008.
[Link] “7 Stages of Universal Break-Through Sequence for an Organisation.” Smriti Chand
Jody W. Phelps, MSc, PMP®, MBA
JayWink Solutions, LLC
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