Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Q&A With Mark Graban - Measures of Success


Organizations depend on metrics for their business. Question is, are they helping people do the right things? Or, encouraging them to overreact to every uptick, downturn, and change?

Mark Graban, author of, Measures of Success, shows a better way to chart and manage your metrics, in any organization or setting. For your business processes and activities, you need to know what’s working, what’s not, and what to change. And why. Then, you can determine what to stop doing, what to start doing, what to keep doing. 

I  recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Mark Graban  and discussing his latest book Measures of Success. Here's a little bit from the Q&A.

Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself Mark. Where did you gain your expertise?

Mark: I don’t know if I would claim “expertise” as much as I’d point to about 25 years of practice, formal learning and study opportunities, and learning through experience.

I started my career in manufacturing before moving primarily into healthcare in 2005. As an Industrial Engineer, I had some exposure to the “just in time” aspect of Lean as an undergrad, but really didn’t learn about Lean as a people system until I was in the working world. During a rocky and interesting two years at General Motors, I worked under a very traditional plant manager and then under a different plant manager who was one of the original GM people who was sent to NUMMI to learn from Toyota. Between him and other mentors (people GM had hired in from Nissan and also from Toyota suppliers), those were some very formative years.

Writing a book or being willing to get up and talk on a stage creates the risk that you get labeled an “expert.” I still very much consider myself a student of Lean and I try to keep learning, challenging myself, and improving.
When it comes to the topics that I cover in Measures of Success, I was very fortunate to get exposed to the work of W. Edwards Deming and Donald J. Wheeler while I was still in college. I’ve read Wheeler’s books on Statistical Process Control and have, likewise, practiced using and teaching these methods over the past 20+ years. I was also able to take Wheeler’s four-day deep dive workshop, which was very helpful. A few years ago, I wrote about how Wheeler’s Understanding Variation book was so important to me. I was honored that Dr. Wheeler agreed to write the foreword for my book.

Q: Why was this book important for you to write?

Mark:Measures of Success was something I felt driven to write because I kept running across organizations making the same preventable mistakes in the context of Lean daily management. For one, on a project level, I see Lean or Six Sigma projects claiming “success” from a handful of “after” data points. Or, sometimes, it’s a simple before and after comparison of two averages or a historical average and a single post-change data point. These comparisons can be misleading if the apparent improvement in the metric is within the realm of routine variation – we could call that “noise’ or point out that a metric is perhaps just fluctuating around an average. When we claim improvement victory off of a data point that’s not significantly better (or performance that’s sustained at a better average), we only hamper our improvement efforts.

Another opportunity for improvement is the way in which ongoing metrics are being displayed and responded to… and these are not just healthcare management issues. I’ve seen these same problems in manufacturing, software companies, and now healthcare, which is why I wrote this as a broader management book and not just a healthcare book, like my previous titles. But back to the point, when metrics are posted in a way that emphasizes “red / green” comparisons to a goal or target, leaders get caught in an overly-reactive cycle of getting too excited or too upset about every change in a metric. Or, they react to the wrong things (a metric that becomes red) instead of reacting to more meaningful, more statistically significant changes in the metric. Even if people don’t want to read my book, I have a number of blog post case studies about a better method that is the core of my book: “Process Behavior Charts.”

The subtitle of the book captures, I think, the core message of Measures of Success – when we react less and lead better, we can improve more.

I also felt compelled to write this book because I feel fortunate to have been exposed to Wheeler’s methods. I’d guess 95% of Lean practitioners and 99% of leaders haven’t been exposed to these methods. We shouldn’t blame people for not using a method they’ve never been taught. We should challenge “the way we’ve always done things” that that includes the we way we’ve always done metrics or the way we’ve always done Lean management.

Q: What message or key points do you hope the reader takes away for your book?

Mark: The core message is to use Process Behavior Charts on your performance metrics. These charts will allow you to make better decisions. Knowing when to react and when to step back and improve more systematically is a very helpful thing to learn. Process Behavior Charts are Wheeler’s term for what has been called “Control Charts” or “Statistical Process Control Charts.” To those with deeper statistical knowledge, Process Behavior Charts are “Control Charts for Individuals” or “XmR Charts” (since the full methodology calls for plotting the data, “X”, and creating a second companion chart of the “moving ranges,” or the change between each two successive data points). With the X Chart, we calculate and plot three additional lines – the average and the “lower and upper natural process limits” (aka “control limits”). The limits are basically plus and minus three sigma around the average. The limits, combined with three simple rules, help us find “signals” – indicators that something has changed in the underlying system that generates the metrics.

But beyond the statistical methods (that aren’t that complicated), this is really a book about managing better. The Process Behavior Chart methodology is something that I’d hope to see used in the context of local metrics (on “huddle boards,” for example) and high-level executive methods (on “strategy deployment walls”). People who have read the book say they’ve gained great insights from the Process Behavior Charts they’ve created. Instead of wasting time reacting to or explaining every up and down in a metric, they can better prioritize their limited time around reacting to signals… and they can, when needed, step back and use a more systematic problem solving approach (like an A3) to improve a system in a less reactive way.

Q: What advice would you offer someone who wants to make better decisions with data?

Mark: The core advice is found in the ten “key points” that I share throughout the book. My first piece of advice would be to stop comparing just two data points to each other. As somebody told me, “Our organization is data driven, but we need more than two data points.” Another bit of advice is to stop looking at lists or tables of numbers. It’s much easier to see the routine variation and any trends by creating a simple run chart (aka a “line chart” in Excel) and looking at a historical context of at least a dozen data points (which means not starting each year with a blank chart, by the way). Better yet would be to use the use of Process Behavior Charts, because the simple math and rules mean that we don’t have to guess about the appearance of signals and trends. Again, when we stop reacting to all of the noise, we have more time for real improvement.

One piece of advice, as I discuss in Chapter 9 of the book, is to start small… to take a Kaizen approach to the testing and adoption of Process Behavior Charts in your organization. Instead of training everybody on a tool and pushing them to use it, think about effective change management tactics, which start with helping people realize that there is a need for change and an opportunity to do things better. But, old habits die hard and it’s difficult to effect change when people are comfortable with the way they’ve always managed.

Q: What's in store for you next? What's the next project or activity?

Mark: While I continue doing “Lean healthcare” work, I have increasingly started doing work related to Kaizen and Process Behavior Charts in other industries. Teaching and coaching people on continuous improvement in a biotech lab or office setting isn’t really that different than being in a hospital (with the exception of patients not being present) – you’ve highly skilled and very motivated people who are often stuck in a system that’s more difficult and less effective than it could be. The same could be said about smart, motivated managers who are hampered by management methods that are more time consuming and less effective than they could be.


I am still working hard to open people’s eyes to Process Behavior Charts and the methodology there, which includes more writing, speaking, workshops, and coaching. I’m still involved with KaiNexus, a software company that helps spread continuous improvement in organizations in many industries. I am fortunate to have lots of varied, interesting things to do and various creative outlets… but beyond keeping busy, I more importantly want to make a difference.




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