By: Richard Eaton

Spring 2020 Issue

“Rules? Hell, there are no rules here we're trying to accomplish something.” Thomas Edison

In the midst of the COVID 19 crisis many organizations are scrambling to adapt, quickly and effectively, to a host of challenges they’ve never had to think about before. 

Rapid cycle improvement is a quality and productivity improvement method that quickly identifies, implements and measures changes made to improve a process or a system. It is well suited to businesses that need results within days or weeks, which is different from more traditional change management approaches that can take months to see results.

With over 20 years’ experience using various rapid cycle improvement techniques to support hundreds of clients, here’s a look at processes we’ve seen work successfully, and others that you should avoid at all costs. 

What Works?

1.  A Recipe for Success
Based on the work of the world-famous statistician and industrial consultant W. Edwards Deming, rapid cycle improvement is anchored on four key phases: Plan, Do, Study, Act. Simply put, plan what you are going to do, do it, study the results, then act to improve. 

Many organizations are really good at the ‘do’ and ‘act’ components but struggle with the ‘plan’ and ‘study’ pieces, mostly because they take too long.  Don’t dilly dally – as General George S. Patton noted: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed at some indefinite time in the future.”

2.  All Hands On Deck
Take a look at your end-to-end processes and notice who plays a key role in their delivery, from the frontline to the C Suite. Then engage those people in the redesign process. Make sure that you include your customers and suppliers because they can tell you what changes they can make to accommodate the needs of the crisis at hand. Avoid setting up a complex web of teams, interconnected by various dotted lines, and get everyone in the room, virtual or otherwise, to build out a solution.

3.  Facilitate, Don’t Dictate
During a crisis the most important tools in a leader’s toolbox are not answers but questions. Leaders at all levels need to identify the key challenges and formulate the right questions that, when answered by their team, will realize big benefits fast. In other words, bosses should check their egos at the door and be open to a little empowerment. This approach will give you the best chance at success. 

What Doesn’t Work?

1. Gentle Lies
Shane Parish notes that ‘too many prefer gentle lies to hard truth.’ During a crisis ‘gentle lies’ and other happy talk can emerge to reassure others that everything will be OK. Even worse, leaders try to sugar coat the situation to avoid looking bad. Rapid cycle improvement approaches are best deployed when you assume that everything is not OK. A crisis is the right time for truth telling. Even if that truth isn’t pleasant share it, frankly and respectfully. Then get going on fixing the problem.

2.  Suspect Data
During the planning stages of your improvement efforts it’s important to base your ‘do it’ approach on reliable data. Deming said ‘In God we trust, all others bring data.’ Without reliable data, you will begin to erode the trust that is essential to an ‘all hands on deck’ approach to rapidly solving problems.

3.  Downplaying Success and Failure
We have been conditioned to underplay successes and failures mainly because few people enjoy having attention brought to themselves, for either reason. However, during a crisis when every action should be designed to create some kind of improvement, it’s important to highlight both successes and failures and communicate those widely to promote faster learning across the whole organization. 

At its core, rapid cycle improvement is a learning process that, like most human learning, works best in a ‘safe to fail’, versus a fail-safe’, culture.

Richard Eaton is a co-founder of Berlineaton a management consulting firm that specializes in continuous improvement, strategy & execution, and leader development.

When Richard isn’t climbing mountains or otherwise enjoying the great outdoors with his family, he works with visionary leaders and teams who are committed to delivering stronger futures for their organizations. To learn more, visit