Continuous improvement with the 'improvement chart'

When we our lean journey in the St. Elisabeth Hospital en we read about 'continuous improvement' we first thought that it implied that we will be running much more improvement projects. We have come to understand that Toyota acts very differently. At Toyota everybody works continuously on improvement. Put differently: improvement is part of your daily work. You perform your activities to create value and you think about how you can do it a little bit better tomorrow.

Which methods support this? Toyota uses many methods, but one of the most well known is the 'andon''  chords. When someone sees that a process is not performing as it should, they pull the chord. A specific music starts to play and several people come and analyze on the spot what the problem is and which countermeasures can be taken to prevent it to occur again. At the picture the arrows point at the 'andon' chords.
This is difficult to apply when treating patients. We can't just stop the care process (or maybe we can, but at this moment it is hard to imagine). That's why we embraced an instrument that has proven to perform a similar function very well in our hospital: the 'improvement chart'. The picture below shows an example of the improvement chart on the Neurosurgery ward.
The chart on the picture is in Dutch. The headings translate in to:
- Date
- Problem
- Countermeasure
- Action: who does what?
- Evaluation date

The method is:
  • When someone can't perform his or her work as it should be, he or she writes it on the chart. E.g. this patient has been twice to the ED and has been treated by two different neurologists. I need to book a follow-up appointment, but I don't know with which Neurologist.
  • Every day or several times a week the whole team gathers at the improvement chart for 15 minutes. People who wrote on it explain the problem. There is a check: is the problem clear?
  • The team discusses the cause of the problem. Do we understand why this problem occurs?
  • The team discusses possible countermeasures. What can we test to prevent this from occurring again or what can we agree so that the next time we know what action to take?
  • The team decides who does what and when they will evaluate the effects of the test.
The decided actions of the former discussions are reflect on:
  • Those who too actions tell the team what they did. The team evaluates the effects they have experienced and decide whether the new way of working becomes the new standard or whether further tests are needed.
  • If it is the new standard, it is removed from the improvement chart and on a second chart, the 'This is how we work' chart,  the new method is written down. If relevant, it becomes a procedure ow work instruction. It is also noted on a digital chart so that later all improvement activity can be reviewed.
  • periodically the team evaluates the improvement chart and discusses which theme's keep occurring on it. They can decide themes to improve on.
The underlying principles correlate with an earlier blog: 'the art of making things small'.

The first improvement chart was tested in October 2008. One year later there are over fifty improvement charts in use in our hospital, in every type of department. Almost every week a department requests support to also introduce it in their teams. Apparently it addresses a strong need and appeals to the teams.

We also learned that about a third of the teams struggle to use it well. They sometimes tend to make problems big, turn the improvement chart in a complaining chart and consequently don't see enough progress. They sometimes don't have (nor create) enough time to work on improvements. Sometimes they lack the skills to apply the method thoroughly.Sometimes also they chart is to isolated. If the team works too much on improvements that are not a priority for the department, the support diminishes.

Despite these problems, the improvement chart is very popular and clearly the most applied instrument in our lean journey untill now. It's indicative that it spreads itself by word of mouth.

The chart enables teams to draw problems into their sphere of influence. By visualizing problem and having a format handle them they become much more productive in the improvement efforts. They experinece it as an intuitive method. Improvement indeed becomes a normal part of everydays work.