“Disruption” has become another business buzzword that obviates the need for prudent, careful thought and consideration. If something is “disruptive,” then it must by definition be good. But when it comes to internal operations at least, disruption is often both bad for business and for employees, because it causes unevenness in work.

Last week, I wrote about how kaizen events can disrupt daily operations and overburden employees. In addition, they tend to signal that “continuous improvement” is actually discontinuous. (“We have a kaizen event this week. Next week it’s back to business as usual.”) I pointed out how companies can make kaizen a daily practice by setting aside standard time, or by using the Toyota kata approach of small experiments.

A final cause of self-inflicted disruption is management’s overreaction to noise in the data it measures. Managers capture all kinds of metrics, from the number of patient falls in a hospital ward, to the first pass yield in a production line, to the number of hits on a website, to the time it takes to repair a bicycle. They cover walls with graphs, and launch investigations when a number turns red or a trend turns downwards. However, not every change is meaningful. Too often, leaders react to every up and down in the metrics, asking for explanations and root causes that don’t actually exist. This kind of overreaction disrupts the organization and leads to activity that is more busy than useful. 

Some changes in metrics are just noise in an otherwise stable system. In his book Measures of Success, Mark Graban makes a compelling argument for more use of Process Behavior Charts (PBC), rather than bowling charts, bar graphs, or a table of numbers. PBCs (also known as process control charts) provide a holistic view of a system’s performance over time, allowing us to hear the “voice of the process.” This context enables management and front line workers to determine whether a change is significant, indicating that something has fundamentally shifted in the system and is worth investigating. As Graban writes, using PBCs subtly shifts the question from “What went wrong last week?” to “What was different last week?” Or even better, “How can we improve the system and its typical performance?” The result is less disruptive overreaction and empty explanations (what Professor Don Wheeler calls “writing fiction”) and more time spent on true value creating work.  

One of my own clients learned this lesson in tracking throughput at its repair facility. For months, the chart turned red or green based on the number of completed repairs each day, leading the VP of the facility to pressure workers, or congratulate them, based on the color in the bowling chart. This was both stressful and frustrating for his mechanics, since they felt as though they were working equally hard everyday.

Only after we made a PBC could we see that the the variation was simply noise in the system—there was no statistical significance to the change in the daily number of repairs. And with the chart, we were able to identify—and celebrate—when our changes truly improved the performance of the system.

Companies that create truly valuable disruptive products and services rightly reap outsize economic rewards. However, the headlong pursuit of external market disruption can blind leaders to the existence, and the cost, of internal disruptions caused by their own business practices. To be sure, some internal disruptions can be beneficial to the company by significantly streamlining processes. But when the disruptions lead to excessive unevenness in daily operations, they create distortions that stress employees, systems, and supply chain networks. By all means, pursue disruption for competitive advantage—but be careful not to disrupt yourself.

Part 1: Management By Walking Around
Part 2: Incentives & Discounts
Part 3: Batch Processing
Part 4: Kaizen Events