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Thinking Outside the Box – The Who

We typically say there are two approaches to process improvement. The first is continuous improvement, which is a systematic method of removing problems from existing processes to put them back in working order. But what if the existing process in working order is no longer sufficient to meet your needs? Then a more dramatic reengineering approach is needed, where the starting point is a blank sheet of paper and the focus is on creative, out of the box thinking.

This post is not about the how to do that, it’s about the who. A problem that teams often have is that the people who have spent their career working the current process from inside the box have difficulty taking a completely fresh look and developing unorthodox approaches. Because process practitioners face this barrier, what do many organization do when they need out of the box thinking? They turn to consultants (which is of course a fantastic idea that works 100% of the time!). Seriously, though, there are just as many problems with having outsiders come in to “reengineer you.” I know a lot about the aviation, health care, insurance, and pension industries and could speak high level about issues in most functional areas in any of them, but I don’t know the issues that a specific hospital/insurance company/pension system faces. That would limit my effectiveness as a reengineer-er.

So what’s the answer? When you need an out of the box solution, I’d recommend a mix of people who know the process well with people who don’t. The people that don’t know the process don’t necessarily have to be external to your organization, but they absolutely do need to be unafraid to ask dumb questions. Many times people outside a process don’t understand long-held assumptions and will get the subject matter experts to rethink things.

As an example, I worked with a team in an MRI department that wanted to improve the utilization of their three scanners. They had two fast ones and a slow one, and the current scheduling process was to keep the fast ones humming all the time and use the slow one only when three cases overlapped. I asked the seemingly stupid question, “What makes the slow one slow?” –expecting to hear that it was older. But in reality it was slower because it took a smaller picture than the “fast” ones, so it had to be reset an extra time or two to get a complete picture of larger areas. This led to the question of “Is it possible to only give the slow scanner only the patients that need small pictures?” We determined that it was, which revamped their scheduling process entirely and in effect created three “fast” scanners.

What I left out of that story were the four genuinely stupid questions I asked before I got to the one that led to the solution. If those had embarrassed me to the point of making me clam up then we wouldn’t have gotten to the winner.

So if you need to think outside the box, combine subject matter experts with those who can take a fresh look, and create an environment where people are encouraged to ask questions and challenge assumptions.

And if that doesn’t work, you can always hire more consultants!

Ralph Smith

For more of Ralph’s ideas on achieving creative solutions, check out his video on Innovation.

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