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Lessons From the Road: Get the Most from Your Assessments

Sept. 30, 2013
Assessments aren't necessarily the most fun activity in a lean journey, but they can be incredibly valuable when executed well and taken seriously.

Assessments are a part of every walk of life, from in-school exams to pre-season camps to quarterly reports. And continuous improvement efforts have always had assessment as a part of the process. Assessment is the part of continuous improvement that people generally don't enjoy, and don't get nearly the value from that they should. As the saying goes, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." How do you get the most value out of your assessments? 

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I've helped design many different assessments, both for our own use and for clients' internal use. I've also executed numerous assessments all over the world. I've observed many companies struggle with their practice, and these are some of the lessons I've taken away.

1. Define the purpose. Before you start signing up resources and setting dates, define what you are trying to accomplish. Are you trying to accelerate your lean efforts? Are you trying to build tension in a complacent organization? Are you trying to find your strengths to build on and share across the company? Don't do an assessment just because it's what people do in a lean journey, or some consultant offered you a "free assessment."

2. Understand the difference between audit and assessment. Audits are intended to look for gaps against an established standard. They are for topics such as food safety and IT security. Any issues found should be fixed, because the core purpose is compliance with an important standard. 

Assessments are about understanding and learning. There is no such thing as a perfect score, unless you actually achieved perfection. Assessments hold a mirror up to a process or an organization and give it useful feedback and recommendations. 

3. Determine the right resources to perform the assessment. Who performs an assessment is vital for both its quality and its credibility. You want someone who has the credibility to provide an objective and insightful assessment. This often is someone from outside the site or function, but not necessarily outside of the company. The separation from the organization being assessed allows an objective review. 

When using internal resources, often a team approach works well. Not only does a set of viewpoints provide increased insight, but it allows the assessment process to double as an internal benchmarking learning process. 

4. Don't focus on the score. Assessments are not about a score. But, once you put a score on the process, it is hard for people not to focus on the score itself. The real purpose of any scoring is for the team's own evaluation of its progress. It's not meant to rank-order sites against each other. 

Would it be better just to drop the scores altogether? Unfortunately, the score is often what gets people's attention. Once they are paying attention to the score, the attention must shift to the feedback and recommendations. 

Assessments Provide an Objective Perspective

5. Combine feedback with your own observations. No process or expert has cornered the market on insight. Many of my own assessments are only three days long, and while I can learn quite a bit and can see things that insiders cannot see, there is also plenty that I can't see in that time. An assessment isn't meant to provide the "right" and final answer. The purpose is to share an objective perspective. You then combine that viewpoint with your own to draw your conclusions. 

I once received a long phone call from a client who wanted to convince me that a certain line item of my assessment was wrong. Instead of combining views, they thought the important task was to change my view, which missed the entire purpose. 

6. Focus on the actions. Assessments are only done to help you decide what to do differently. It's not the assessment alone, but the actions you plan as a result. Many times, assessments don't tell you what to do, but they tell you what to do first, which is a much harder challenge. 

To read more of Jamie Flinchbaugh's articles, visit

Assessments aren't necessarily the most fun activity in a lean journey, but they can be incredibly valuable when executed well and taken seriously. 

Contributing Editor Jamie Flinchbaugh is a co-founder and partner of the Lean Learning Center in Novi, Mich., and the co-author of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to Lean: Lessons from the Road."

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