If All You Have is a Hammer…The Importance of Having a Full Improvement Toolkit

“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” so the saying goes.  In other words, each tool – be it for carpentry, cooking, or process improvement – has a distinct purpose, and tools are sub-optimized if they are used for anything other than that distinct purpose.  Which is why I get a bit frustrated when leaders tell me sometimes: “we can’t use Baldrige because we’re already using Lean.”  That’s like saying “I don’t need to exercise, because I’m already dieting.”  Well, if the goal is weight loss or improved health, you need both!

In a couple of weeks (November 12), we will host our fall conference: “Tools for Process/Operational Excellence.”  We will focus on foundational, intermediate, and sophisticated tools for reducing waste, improving quality, increasing productivity, and/or adding value for customers.  (Some seats are available and the Early Bird deadline is November 1; for more information, visit here.)

Our conference and its focus on tools reminded me of an old fable about the importance of understanding the strengths and limitations of tools.  It goes something like this:

Hammer served as the chairman of the tool belt – the leader of the group.  But the other members of the tool belt informed him that he must leave, because he was too noisy…
But Hammer said, “If I have to leave this carpenter’s shop, then Gimlet must go too: he’s insignificant and makes a very small impression” (a gimlet is a small tool for boring holes).  The little Gimlet arose and said, “All right, but Screwdriver must go also: you have to turn him around and around to get anywhere with him.” 
Screwdriver turned to the other tools in the belt and said, “If you wish, I will go, but Plane must leave too: all of his work is on the surface – there’s no depth to what he does.”  To this, Plane leveled his terse reply, “Well, then, Saw will have to depart too: the changes he proposes always cut too deep.”  Saw complained, saying, “Ruler will have to withdraw if I leave, for he’s always measuring other folks as though he were the only one who is right.”  Ruler then surveyed the group and said, “Sandpaper doesn’t belong here either: he’s rougher than he ought to be, and is always rubbing people the wrong way.”
In the midst of the discussion, the carpenter walked in.  He had come to perform his day’s work.  He put on his tool belt and went to the workbench.  He employed the ruler, the saw, the plane, the hammer, the gimlet, the screwdriver, the sandpaper, and all the other tools.  When the day’s work was over, the project was finished, and the carpenter went home.  All the accusations against each of these tools were absolutely true, yet the carpenter used every one of them.  No matter which tool the carpenter used, no other tool could have done the work better.


Process improvement tools are only effective if they are used in the right way.  And organizations often try to force a particular tool on a problem for which it was not designed.  Square peg; round hole.  In fact, I contend that many failed process improvement projects have very little to do with the improvement tool(s) itself, and much to do about selecting the right tool(s) and then managing the change in implementing them.

So I invite you to come to our November conference to learn more about over a dozen simple and sophisticated process/operational improvement tools.  Hear from businesses (like Seagate, IBM, 3M, Loram, Ecolab), public sector and nonprofit organizations (like Hennepin County, UCare, Lakeville Public Schools, and the State of Minnesota), and healthcare organizations (like Mankato Clinic and Winona Health), as well as many consultant experts in their field.  For a full agenda and registration information, visit here.

But in the meantime, here is a list of those tools we’ll be examining that day, as well as a link to find more information on each of them.  Consider this a handy primer on process improvement tools:

A3 Problem Solving: A3 is a structured problem solving approach.  The term “A3″ derives from the paper size used for the report, which is the metric equivalent to 11″ x 17” paper size.  A3 helps structure and understand the problem, then convey potential solutions and interventions.  As such A3 also is a handy communication tool for project management.

Control Chart: According to ASQ, the control chart is a graph used to study how a process changes over time.  A control chart always has a central line for the average and an upper and lower control limit, which are determined from historical data.  By comparing current data to these lines, you can draw conclusions about whether the process variation is consistent (in control) or unpredictable (out of control, affected by special cause variation).

Fishbone Diagram: A Fishbone Diagram (also Fishbone Analysis, Cause and Effect Analysis, or Ishikawa Diagram) is a tool used to identify many possible causes for an effect or problem.  It can be used to structure a brainstorming session, and it can immediately sort ideas into useful categories.

Flow Chart: A flowchart (also process flow or process map) is a picture of the separate steps of a process in sequential order.  It includes activities, decision points, inputs and outputs, and sometimes people involved and/or time.  Flowcharts can be of all types of processes, including manufacturing, service, project plans, administrative tasks, and so forth.  Seeing the flow can clarify steps and roles and can identify improvement opportunities.

Histogram: In statistics, a histogram is a graphical representation of the distribution of data.  It is an estimate of the probability distribution of a continuous variable and is a representation of tabulated frequencies, shown as adjacent rectangles.  Histograms give a quick visual of frequencies of occurrence.  See Pareto for a special type of Histogram.

Hoshin Kanri Planning: Japanese-style Hoshin Kanri is a proven method for developing, deploying, and accomplishing strategic objectives.  Hoshin Kanri (also called Policy Deployment) is a method for ensuring that the strategic goals of an organization drive progress and action at every level within that organization.

Interrelationship Diagraph: Also called Relations Diagram, this tool shows the cause and effect relationships – the natural links between different aspects of a complex situation.

Lean: According to the Lean Enterprise Institute, the core idea of Lean is to maximize customer value while minimizing waste.  Simply, Lean means creating more value for customers with fewer resources.  Lean originated, essentially, from the Toyota Production System, and many tools sit under the Lean methodology, including 5S (a simple way to organize work), Value Stream Mapping (a tool used to visually map current and future state flow), Mistake Proofing Poka Yoke (design error detection and prevention with the goal of zero defects), Failure Modes Effect Analysis (FMEA), Kanban (a method of regulating flow), Kaizen (a method where employees work together to achieve regular, incremental improvements in the process), and many others.

Pareto Chart: Sometimes called Pareto Diagram or Pareto Analysis, a Pareto Chart is a bar graph that shows frequency of events (or time, cost, or other variables), arranged with the longest bars on the left and the shortest on the right.  In this way, the chart visually depicts which situations occur the most frequently and therefore may be the most significant.  A simple analysis tool for prioritizing.

PDCA (or PDSA): This is an iterative methodology for designing and implementing improvements, where P is Plan (design the improvement), D is Do (implement and pilot/test the improvement), C is Check or S is Study (verify whether expected results are achieved), and A is Act (review, assess, fully roll out and then repeat).  This concept is the fundamental basis for the deployment of all quality tools, and needs to be an integral part of management decisions.  So whether you are using ISO, Baldrige, Lean, Six Sigma, or any number of other improvement tools and frameworks, knowing PDCA will give you the foundation for systematic improvement.

Quality Function Deployment (QFD): This tool is a method for carefully listening to the voice of your customer, and then effectively responding to those needs and expectations.  First used in Japan in the 60s, QFD began to be used in the US in the 80s.

Root Cause Analysis: This is a problem solving approach that focuses on identifying and resolving the underlying problem(s) instead of applying “quick fixes” that only treat immediate symptoms of process problems.  A common approach is to ask “why” five times, each time moving a step closer to discovering the true underlying problem.  For example, our system was down for 2 hours last week, causing service issues with customers.  Why?  Because the servers where down due to a power outage.  Why?  Because the utility company had unscheduled downtime and we did not have an alternative plan.  Why?  Our generator broke two weeks ago and repairs weren’t scheduled until next week.  Why?  Because our contract with the generator service company wasn’t robust enough to require faster response.  Solution: change the contract with the generator company so that we are never without a Plan B for power outages.

Run Chart: A run chart is used to monitor the behavior of a variable over time for a process or system.  Run charts graphically display cycles, trends, shifts, or non-random patterns in behavior over time.  They can help identify problems and the time when a problem occurred, or monitor progress when solutions are implemented.

Scatter Diagram: The scatter diagram graphs pairs of numerical data to look for a relationship between them.  If the variables are correlated, the points will fall along a line or curve.  The better the correlation, the tighter the points will hug the line.

Visual Controls: Visual controls are a system of signs, information displays, layouts, material storage and handling tools, color-coding, and poka-yoke or mistake proofing devices. These controls fulfill the old fashioned adage: a place for everything and everything in its place. The visual control system makes product flow, operations standards, schedules and problems instantly identifiable to even the casual observer.  Visual control methods aim to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of a process by making the steps in that process more visible.


In selecting process, operational, and enterprise improvement tools, sometimes it feels like alphabet soup — there are so many tools for so many purposes.  The trick is in picking the right tool(s) for the circumstances in which you operate, the problems you are trying to solve, and the outcomes you are trying to achieve.

Sometimes you need to integrate tools (think Lean Six Sigma); sometimes you need to modify or adjust them to fit your organizational context (no tool is pure, so feel free to adapt to what your organization needs); and always you need to pay attention to the tools’ fit with your organizational culture.

If a hammer is all you have, you’d better hope that all you encounter are nails.

Yours in Performance Excellence,

Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network (formerly Minnesota Council for Quality)


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