Standardize Before Improving
Klaus M. Blache | March 1, 2021
When you make changes (anticipated improvements) in an unstable process, you introduce chaos.
While living in the village of Dimondale, MI (suburb of Lansing), a small roundabout was constructed at a three-way, out-of-the-way intersection. It was more like a small bump in the road at first. It just showed up and as I drove by periodically, I noticed that there were a growing number of skid marks over the bump. I surmised that nighttime drivers were surprised and stomped on the brakes, sliding over it. Later, additional signage and a lighted bollard made it more visible. Much later, I found out that it was America’s first mini roundabout opened to traffic on May 30, 2001.
Mini roundabouts are quite unlike large roundabouts. They have a paved central island that larger vehicles can drive over, since the circle is often too small to work for them.
Of course, knowing that, I needed to know the location of the largest roundabout. Several sources pointed to Putrajaya, Malaysia, with a roundabout 2.7 miles in diameter. In 1972, designer/traffic engineer, Frank Blackmore created one of the largest traffic circles in the world—the Seven Circle Magic Roundabout in Swindon, England.
According to Wikipedia, “this massive roundabout may look like chaos at first glance, but there’s serious planning behind it. Traffic flow around the inner circle is anticlockwise, and traffic flows in the usual clockwise manner around the five mini-roundabouts on the outer loop. The complex junction offers multiple paths between feeder roads.” I drove it twice and it was very stressful.
In the big picture, roundabouts are proven to be safe, and I’ve learned to appreciate them. Most people, however, still drive poorly when using them, primarily because they just showed up without standardized training. As a result, people follow what they observe by watching others and assume the rest, creating lots of variability. It should have been:
Plan: Make sure what the best practice is for you. Then clarify the rules.
Do: Teach the best practice.
Check: Hold people accountable for following the rule/best practice.
Act: Empower team members to make ongoing changes. Follow up to confirm that the new idea was effective.
A key part of W. Edwards Deming’s teaching was that it is necessary to reduce variation before trying to improve quality. Otherwise, you are most likely increasing variation (other defects) and hurting your processes. By first standardizing to current daily best practices, you’re adding stability to your processes. Similarly, improvements in reliability and maintainability work better on top of a stable process as a foundation for meaningful change. EP
Based in Knoxville, Klaus M. Blache is director of the Reliability & Maintainability Center at the Univ. of Tennessee, and a research professor in the College of Engineering. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.