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The High Velocity Edge: Part 7

May 2021

Welcome to part seven of a series on Steven Spear’s 2009 book The High Velocity Edge. Today, I’ll discuss how high velocity organizations how solve problems and improve their systems.

The first capability is designing systems with built-in checks that reveal problems. The second capability is solving those problems, then improving systems to mitigate future problems. Over time, this yields high velocity systems with fewer problems.

There’s no magic here, just a commitment to the scientific process and to discipline of problem solving.

A “problem” is anything that inhibits achieving the ideal flow. The ideal is asymptotic. Organizations can approach it, but never quite hit it. There will always be defects or unexpected scenarios. We don’t have perfect knowledge so failure is inevitable. Each failure is an opportunity to discover something new and move one step closer to the ideal.

I’m just going to quote Dr. Spear for this. This excerpt hit me square in the face because it wonderfully lays out the ideal flow. It is:

  • Defect-free—never compromising customer satisfaction
  • On demand—only in response to real need.
  • One piece at a time—providing those who needed something exactly what they could put to use, not overburdening them with the obligation to hold things in anticipation of future need.
  • Immediate—providing those who needed something what they needed without imposing any waiting time on them, but, if this was impossible, small batches of finished goods might be kept on hand to provide the illusion of immediacy.
  • Without waste—never spending time, effort, creativity, and other efforts in ways that wouldn’t be valued by someone else.
  • safe—so one gets hurt physically or emotionally or is professional threatened.
  • secure—so that material, services, or information go only to those intended and not others.

So, if the system falls short of the ideal, then that’s a problem. High velocity organizations follow a disciplined problem solving approach that goes something like this.

Step one: describe the process and why you’re concerned about it.

Step two: describe the current condition. This is how the work is being done and problems are occurring.

Step three: conduct root cause analysis. What did you learn when investigating the problem?

Step four: apply countermeasures. How did you attempt to offset the causes and eliminate the problem?

Step five: clarify the target condition. How was work expected to proceed with countermeasures in place?

Step six: what actually happened?

Step seven: conduct gap analysis. If there’s a difference between the target condition and reality, then why is that?

This is basically the scientific method, but just saying that doesn’t make it easier to start doing. That requires discipline and focus. That’s the hard part.

Concepts like the Plan-do-check-at (PDCA) loop or Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop encapsulate the same the process.

The important part is that these are loops. They are not one-off processes. Organizations continually apply these processes in a disciplined way to continuously improve their work.

Combine the disciplined problem solving approach with fast flow then you have seeds of high speed continuous improvement, or kaizen.

The first two capabilities build this feedback loop. The remaining two capabilities reinforce it. More on that in the next episode.