If we define a problem to be a performance gap for which we do not know the cause, then knowing the size of that gap is obviously important. When we know how big a problem is, we can determine the impact the problem is having on our organisation. This in turn informs the quantity of resources, such as time, skills and materials, we can justifiably commit to solving the problem. Quantification of the problem also helps us to prioritise the problem, as most organisations have many problems requiring attention at any point in time. It is important therefore that we get this quantification right.
The first thing we need to do when measuring a problem is to decide on a performance measure. This performance measure needs to be easy to understand, easy to measure and completely aligned to the specific problem we are trying to solve. The performance measure you choose should link directly to your problem statement. Try to keep as much “noise” out of your performance measure as possible, focusing it as closely on your problem as you can. So, for example, if your problem is to do with lateness of employees on weekends, a performance measure such as “the average time by which employees are late” would not be specific enough. Your performance measure should focus only on “the average time by which employees are late on weekends”. These two examples of performance measures would quantify the problem very differently, and if the former measure is used, then it would not be a true reflection of the size of the problem. Employee lateness occurring during the week would cloud the issue.
We could focus our performance measure even more if, in analysing our problem, we found that it was only the employees on one specific shift (e.g. Shift C) who were late on weekends. Our performance measure may then become “the average time by which employees on Shift C are late on weekends”. Focus, focus, focus! This is the golden rule at every step of the problem solving process.
The performance measure you choose would also have units of measurement and these too should be appropriate to the problem at hand. In the case of our example, “minutes” would be the appropriate unit of measurement to use, as employees are typically not late by hours or days. So our performance measure would look into how late the employees on Shift C are on weekends, and we would measure this lateness in minutes. We could apply this performance measure to a defined time frame, such as the last 2 weeks, the last 6 months or whichever timeframe we believe to be relevant for our problem. We could measure it as an average over those periods or track it each week and construct a trend. You have flexibility in terms of how you use the performance measure chosen, including revising this performance measure as problem solving proceeds and new insights are uncovered.
Now that we have a performance measure and a unit of measurement, we need to determine a target. By measuring current performance and comparing this to our target, we can calculate the size of the performance gap, which is then, by definition, the size of our problem. The target is essentially the end state we are trying to achieve through our problem solving effort.
Performance measures are vital in that they help us to detect problems, to quantify them and to measure them as the problem solving process proceeds. They also have one other very important role. Once we have found the root cause of our problem, developed a solution and then implemented it, we can use our performance measure to evaluate if the problem has indeed been solved. This is an important aspect of the “Check” phase of PDCA.
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