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SAMHSA News - September/October 2007, Volume 15, Number 5

What Is Process Improvement?

What’s the best way to make changes in an organization? “In one small step after another,” said Todd Molfenter, Ph.D., Deputy Director of the Network for the Improvement of Addiction Treatment (NIATx).

“What often happens when organizations want to change something is that they begin with a whole planning process that takes 6 months,” said Dr. Molfenter. “The process takes so long that the effort loses energy. Or there’s a lot of resistance, because the change you want to implement feels so final that people are afraid of it.”

The NIATx model was created to prevent such problems. Based on years of research, this approach to process improvement relies on five key principles.

Key Principles

  • Understand and involve the customer. Treatment providers should ask clients about what needs improvement and seek their advice on how to make things better.

  • Fix the key problems. Focusing on the problems that keep the executive director awake at night helps garner support from the organization’s leaders and ensure success.

  • Pick a powerful change leader. Those in charge of organizational change must have authority, the respect of their colleagues, and sufficient time to devote to the initiative.

  • Get ideas from outside the organization or field. Other organizations or even fields, such as the hospitality industry, can offer fresh perspectives.

  • Use rapid-cycle testing to establish effective changes. The idea is to take on one small change at a time and see how it works. After making the change, the team evaluates the results, modifies the change if necessary, tests it again, and repeats the process until the change is good enough to be made permanent.

After each change, explained Dr. Molfenter, an organization has three basic options: If the change worked well, they can adopt it. If it worked all right but still needs a bit of fine-tuning, the organization can adapt it. And if it didn’t work out at all, they can abandon it.

“This common-sense approach encourages organizations to experiment,” said Dr. Molfenter.

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