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Houston, We Have An Improvement Opportunity

Posted by Mark Graban

Aug 12, 2014 9:37:00 AM

5471047557_4dc13f5376_mIn a previous post, I wrote about the definition of a "problem," as taught to me by mentors who previously worked at Toyota. A problem is a measurable gap between a target condition and a current condition. If an organization is not meeting a stated goal or customer expectation, that’s a problem.

Back in the day when Domino’s Pizza promised 30-minute delivery, any delivery that took longer than 30 minutes was a problem. If a store’s average time was 40 minutes, that would be a problem, because it was not meeting the goal. Domino’s, thankfully, eventually put safety first and got rid of that goal to reduce the pressure on drivers that often led to accidents.

Amazon.com often promises two-day delivery or overnight delivery (with the help of their shipping partners). If a package does not arrive within the promised time, then that’s a problem.

But, what happens if Amazon has approached 100% on-time delivery rates. Would they stop improving? No - they would find “opportunities” once all problems have been solved.

An opportunity can be defined as the desire to improve a performance target to a new level.

For example, Amazon realized that customers who ordered on Friday might have to wait until Tuesday for their free two-day delivery. Amazon found an opportunity to partner with the US Postal Service to start Sunday deliveries in some cities.

The opportunity could be defined as:

  • New Target (“what we’d like to have happen”) = Sunday delivery

  • Current Target (“what’s currently happening”) = Tuesday delivery

  • Gap = 2 days

  • Impact = more customers might order from Amazon on Friday instead of going out shopping to a local store over the weekend

In hospitals, the emergency department measures the average length of stay for patients. If a hospital is meeting their “door to door time” goal of 120 minutes for patients who are discharged from the E.D. (instead of being admitted), there is no problem. But, the hospital might find an improvement opportunity to set a new target that’s a faster time.

  • New Target = 100 minutes

  • Current Target = 120 minutes

  • Gap = 20 minutes

  • Impact = faster treatment and higher patient satisfaction scores

A “problem” is inherently a negative statement - it’s something that’s NOT happening. It might be something that we MUST improve. 

An “opportunity” is a positive statement - it’s something we’d like to have happen. It might be a choice instead of being necessary; it's something we’d LIKE to improve.

Solving problems and taking advantage of opportunities are both important strategies for any organization. When you find something that looks like a problem, look carefully - it might not be a problem at all. And if you don't see any problems? Start looking for opportunities.

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