Change vs Improvement — Who Decides and How?

GUEST OPINION: Change vs. improvement — who decides and how?  Submitted to the Democrat as  a Guest Opinion column –   published for  the June 8, 2021 edition

In my guest opinion column, Challenges and opportunities with new septic ordinance, Brown County Democrat, May 25, 2021, I reinforced the need for the application of better principles and methods that will lead to a higher probability of producing an outcome where everyone benefits, or at least everyone will not be any worse off in the long term. Meeting this objective requires there be a process in place that captures how citizens define the more perfect or ideal outcome, along with the feedback they will require for assessing results.

For context, the U.S. government system at all levels was designed to enable We the People to work together in making progress toward a more perfect Union, county, and community. Changes are made through amendments, new laws, ordinances, and better day-to-day decisions. What is often missing in the process is assessing results — verifying that the change resulted in better outcomes. Once legislation (new ordinance) is passed, it becomes accepted, forgotten, and problems can be ignored or are slow to be resolved.

Many of the U.S. founders were students of human nature, history, philosophy, and the Bible. Lessons of history identify that centralization of political power in the hands of the few (be it at a local or national level) is never good and produces suboptimal results. The reference to more perfect was influenced by a biblical worldview where only God is perfect and man is imperfect and expected to improve. In a secular approach to improvement, man identifies the ideal, or more perfect. In a quality management context, the customer defines the ideal.

To support continuous quality improvement, new processes and technologies for improving any system and in any area (profit, non-profit) started to emerge in the 1920s. In 1924, Dr. Walter Shewhart of Bell Labs developed a new method for managing variability that helps determine when change results in improvement. This knowledge increases the probability that change in any aspect of life will result in the expected improvement.

Variation represents the gap between the ideal or more perfect outcome and the actual situation. These methods were classified during WWII and applied to improve the quality and quantity of war materials. They were declassified after the war and shared worldwide beginning in Japan. Application of the new technologies helped companies grow — like Toyota, which became one of the largest and most profitable automobile manufacturers in the world.

At one time, it was believed that quality costs more. It is now an accepted fact among the world’s quality management profession, leading organizations, and customers that the closer a product or service gets to the ideal (a more perfect outcome) by reducing variation, the higher the quality and the lower the cost to the customer and society. This concept is referred to as the Taguchi loss function. For a more common illustration, consider the situation when you buy or receive a product or service. Do you want it to meet your expectation for quality and cost, or would you rather have a bad experience that you might share with as many people as possible?

In 2017, Brown County, through a team of volunteers, applied for and was accepted to participate in the Hometown Collaborative Initiative (HCI) sponsored by the Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affair. The intent of HCI was to provide training in order to build and sustain a capability for supporting improvements throughout the community. The project categories included Economy, Placemaking, and Leadership. The Brown County team was the first in the program’s history to select Leadership for the capstone project.

The first application was in support of a local foods’ initiative which identified that we lacked the needed capabilities and processes. We then shifted to development of support materials that integrated some basic quality principles and methods. We also developed a concept for a Brown County Leader Network (BCLN) and a supporting website (browncountyleadernetwork.com). Our first proof-of-concept project was in support of the Jackson Township Trustees Office. The COVID-19 pandemic led to a pause in further application.

In contrast to the approach that was taken to develop and approve the new septic ordinance, identifying all the stakeholders is among the first steps in applying a better process. Stakeholders include everyone who can be affected by the change in the short, mid, and long term. They can be classified into three areas: Direct (receive the service), Internal (provide the service), and Indirect (everyone else). Once the stakeholders are identified, the next step is to identify their respective needs, the products and services to be provided, and the expectations and related feedback measures. This is an iterative process that can be further developed over time as new insights and knowledges are gained.

In addition to a stakeholder assessment, additional materials support analysis, decision making, and planning that reinforce the critical need to identify and define the scope and extent of the problem. Application of the better processes by citizens can lead to further improvements and more community support for the respective changes. The new processes also allow for periodic review of the change to determine if it is achieving the expected results.

America’s system of government was designed to continually improve through leadership at all levels. Application of the better and proven methods can lead to better (more perfect) results where everyone benefits, or at least, is not any worse off in the long term.

Tim Clark

Tim Clark of Brown County is a quality improvement practitioner, educator and author who specializes in the public sector. He is a senior member of the American Society for Quality, a volunteer with the Brown County Leader Network, and an admin for the Facebook group Brown County Matters. He has served on the Brown County Redevelopment Commission and on the Brown County Schools Strategic Planning Committee. He can be reached at tjclark2036@gmail.com.

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