The Myth of the Quick Win

The myth of the quick win. Brian Hunt 30/09/14

Finding ‘quick wins’ or “picking low hanging fruit’ is an often used cliché thrown around by people who don’t really understand the fundamentals of process improvement. Finding a quick win may only be addressing a symptom but it can be easily measured and applauded as an objective achieved, with subsequent kudos to the manager who found it. But it may miss the systemic, deep rooted issues that lead to these problems in the first place.

It’s important to spend time understanding how things work, how processes, people and technology connect together within an organisation. Does everything fits together in the most effective way? Are the swim lanes in one department aligned with the swim lanes of the departments upstream or downstream? Looking for quick wins in individual departments may provide local improvements but the majority of process problems seen in an organisation are caused by the handovers between internal functions (e.g. poor handover between design and production departments) or external ones such as suppliers and customers.

The people who have more awareness anybody in an organisation of where the problems are and where the quick wins can be found other people in the process. This is demonstrated by the research published 25 years ago by Sidney Yoshida which defined an Iceberg of Ignorance

4% of the problems are known to senior managers

9% of the problems are known to middle managers

75% of the problems are known to supervisors

100% of the problems are known to frontline workers

This means that 96% of the problems are not known to the top managers. Yet the senior and middle managers are generally the ones that make the call to “find quick wins”. Typically, the front-line workers are not consulted. Instead the organisation may decide that the approach to take is to train a group of Six Sigma belts who will suddenly gain the insight and understanding of problems that is already available to the organisation if they would just speak to the people at the bottom of the organisational pyramid.

Management may wrongly assume that, just because someone wears overalls, they are not capable of creative and valuable insights and ideas. When this is the culture, people tend to keep their ideas to themselves although they may discuss them with their colleagues. The discussion will typically end with “why bother, they won’t listen anyway”. But when these people are listened to and their ideas acted on, more ideas will follow. Being respected for having knowledge, ideas and insight lifts their self-respect and leads to better and more sustainable improvements. And of course, is how quality circles started. These had a brief existence in the early 1980s in the UK and then faded away because management failed to understand how to manage the people in them. This is commented on in an article Quality Circle Criticised as a formalised hunt for people to blame for the problems that it identified in The Economist, Nov 4th 2009

I’m speaking from experience. I spent nearly twenty years working on the factory floor and worked with bright people who were ignored and eventually gave up thinking of new ideas, recognising that keeping ‘ones head below the parapet’ was the safest option!