Using a Proportional Response to Improve Quality

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Improving the quality of your own performance, or that of an organization, can be a complex and long-term endeavor. In his book The Lean Startup, Eric Reis explains a doable method for making incremental adjustments that can dramatically improve performance in yourself and others over time.

For example, Reis described how their computer network went down due to a change made by a new employee. Many causal factors contributed to the problem. How do you make sure this doesn't happen again?

Or, I've had frustrating conversations with colleagues in a volunteer organization that I belong to. I was not happy with my performance. How do I make sure I don't get in that situation again?

Anytime you have some performance you want to improve, you can use the following advice from Eric Reis:

First, discover the sequence of efficient causes. Ask "Why" five times, to identify the causal chain that led to the poor quality result. In doing this, it's important to leave out evaluation. The assumption is that every misstep was an honest mistake by a well-intentioned person, and you are just documenting the missteps, not blaming or criticizing the people who took the steps.

The goal is to put systems in place to prevent missteps. When you have great systems in place, good people perform great feats. It is much easier and faster to adjust the systems than it is to change one's character or improve a skill! (And if you are in a team situation, you have no way to "make" other people improve themselves.)

After you identify the sequence of causes, you identify ways to eliminate or mitigate the problem at each level. And Reis's brilliant advice is this: make a "proportional response" at each level — meaning make a small change at each level of causality.

You do not have to fix everything at once, nor can you, and it's better to distribute the effort across the levels. For example, here are the five whys for the example of my frustration:

1) Why did I get frustrated? Because I couldn't change X's mind.

2) Why couldn't I convince X? Because I didn't know exactly what I was trying to convince X of.

3) Why didn't I know? Because I didn't prepare for the meeting.

4) Why didn't I prepare? It didn't occur to me.

5) Why didn't it occur to me? I was unaware of my own vagueness.

Some people might be tempted to address this entirely with real-time communication skills (level 1). But this would not reduce the number of times these frustrating situations come up. And developing those skills is a time-consuming process. Other people might go deep, and say they need to develop skills to identify and reduce vagueness. This too would be helpful, but it's a huge, amorphous undertaking. It doesn't make sense to undertake such a campaign in response to one conversation.

What Reis recommends is that you do a little something to help with each level. In my own example, I am going to make up an index card reminding me what I know to do for each level — and set a standing order to check the card before planned meetings. This response is a "proportional" response. The time I put into making this card (5-10 minutes) is a suitable amount of effort relative to one conversation.

Now, if this remedy doesn't help enough, there will be other difficult conversations in the future where I can make additional small improvements.

Reis reports that over time, through proportional responses to problems with new employees, his company developed a thorough, effective on-boarding process that got new employees up to speed in such a way that the company maintained the quality of its systems. It was founded entirely on empirical evidence of what the employees needed to function properly. And it was a process that developed organically, rather than a top-down approach that probably would have been bureaucratic and not exactly what they needed.

I think both parts of Eric Reis's method are important: Look at 5 layers of causality (without blame), and make a small adjustment at every level. This creates a sustainable virtuous cycle of improvement.

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