Mitigating the Risks of Running Improvement Tests While Maximizing the Learning: An Excerpt from The Improvement Guide

The following is an excerpt from The Improvement Guide: A Practical Approach to Enhancing Organizational Performance (Langley GL, Nolan KM, Nolan TW, Norman CL, Provost LP. San Francisco, California, USA: Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1996)
The scale of the test should be decided according to (1) the degree of belief that the change will result in improvement, and (2) the risks from a failed test. As shown in the following table, very small-scale tests are needed when the consequences of failure will be major and the degree of belief in success is low. Consequences might include severe negative impact on customers, financial loss, or injuries. The use of expensive new technology, introduction of a new service, or the test of a new medical procedure would fall into this category. When risks are high, it is always wise to have a contingency plan developed that describes the actions needed in case the test fails.
Low Degree of Belief in Success
High Degree of Belief in Success
Failed Test would have Minor Consequences
Medium-scale tests
One cycle to implement the change
Failed Test would have Major Consequences
Very small-scale tests
Small- to medium-scale test
If the consequences of a failed test are major but one’s degree of belief in success is high, then small- to medium-scale tests should be considered. The test of a medical procedure or a drug to be shown elsewhere to be an improvement would fall into this category. The test is directed at learning about the use of the procedure or drug in a new environment.
Consequences are often minor when tests are run that affect processes or systems that are internal to the organization — that is, when the tests do not have a direct impact on the organization’s customers. In these cases, tests can be done on a larger scale.
If small-scale tests are appropriate, one way to design such a test is to simulate the change in some way, as in the following example:
Consideration was being given to installing a pneumatic tube system to carry sample parts between two areas in a large organization. Before the installation, the supervisor in one of the areas decided to run a test to determine the utilization of such a system. For a week, she wore a beeper. If anyone wanted to send parts, they would beep her and she would hand carry them to the other area.
By simulating the pneumatic tube system and measuring utilization, the supervisor was in a better position to make a decision about whether to implement this change. Modeling a change on a computer or role-playing are two other ways to simulate a change. Often, some imagination is all that is needed.
Besides simulating the change, some other ways to design a small-scale test are:
  • Have others who have some knowledge about the change review and comment on its feasibility.
  • Test the new product or the new process on the members of the team that developed the change before introducing it to others.
  • Incorporate redundancy in the test by making the change side-by-side with the existing process or product (a simultaneous comparison test).
  • Conduct the test in only one facility or office in the organization, or with only one customer.
  • Conduct the test over a short period.
  • Test the change on a small group of volunteers.
Testing a change on a small scale is an important way of reducing people’s fears of making a change. When small-scale tests are not considered, people procrastinate. They try to develop the perfect change because of the potential consequences of a failed test. This approach might be particularly prevalent in some big corporations or government agencies where any change to programs or policies is usually scrutinized. When planning a cycle to test a change, much thought should be given to developing ways of building knowledge through small-scale tests.
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