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A Real-time Introduction to Improvement

My grandfather worked most of his life as an engineer—Boeing, Rocket Research Corp, and others—but when he retired he pursued quality assurance in the fields of aerospace and nuclear power. It was his experiences as an engineer and managing engineers that influenced his way of thinking and led him into this field.

He recently passed away and we have been going through countless boxes of meticulous files dating as far back as the late 70s. Most of my life I only knew about his life as an engineer working on the Viking II (the NASA project that landed on Mars in Sept. 1976) or his early days at Boeing. But the guy lived to be 96, and over a third of his life was spent in quality assurance. 


Charles "Chuck" Cable black and white photo

Charles "Chuck" Cable poses for a photo (1950s)


I didn’t really know what quality assurance was until I discovered a row of boxes packed with NASA documents, stacks of worksite Polaroids, a collection of books and pamphlets about improvement, root cause analysis, and documents like “Quality Assurance and Nuclear Power.” As I began this journey into the evidence of my grandpa’s life, I also started a new gig here at Shift and dove in head first into the world of continuous improvement. It’s been a wild case of serendipity feeling the parallel created between the question “so what did grandpa do for all these years?” and my work at Shift. 

A question we often hear is: what are the differences between quality assurance and quality improvement? As I begin to understand the two through my work with Shift and the stacks of boxes my grandpa left behind,  it’s not the differences that I find useful in understanding what improvement science is and how it can transform teams and systems. It’s how quality assurance and continuous improvement work together.


Reliability and Quality Assurance Documents

From Grandpa's Archives: April 1920, Rocket Research Reliability and Quality Assurance Publication

If Quality Assurance establishes and ensures compliance to standards, where does improvement come into the field?

According to the American Society for Quality, auality assurance standards “provide requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used to consistently ensure that materials, products, processes, and services are fit for their purpose” (2022). This makes sense in aerospace and nuclear power—having a foundational baseline of quality that guarantees safety and/or the workability of a machine or system. It makes sense that these fields require external inspectors, evaluators, regulations, and accreditation or certification to ensure this baseline quality defined by industry standards and criteria and produces validation. We are talking about life and death in these fields! Having similar standards for the health and safety of people also  makes sense for the healthcare, childcare, and education fields where Shift works regularly. If quality assurance establishes a  baseline, or a minimum requirement for quality, where does improvement come in? 

Every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does.


This brings us to improvement science.

I never had the chance to talk to my grandpa about his work. He was always more interested in hearing about what we were studying in school or what art project or band we were working on. But in understanding Shift’s approach to working with organizations and teams, I’m starting to understand my grandpa’s work. 

Leaders in improvement science often say every system is perfectly designed to get the result that it does. In other words, a system will only produce different results if it is redesigned to work differently. Having worked in higher education, I know change is a slow process in well-established systems, even when a system so clearly produces inequitable outcomes and needs improvement. However, the pressures of evolving technology, social change, and community needs demand systems to improve their outcomes for the communities they serve. 

In the face of these demands, operating at baseline is not enough. Organizations must be ready to adapt and perform beyond baseline when the urgency of our times demand it. We can see the way Covid-19 created an asynchronous and ongoing change in demand, staffing, finance and more. The way we work completely changed. In real time, we saw the shifts in our society test the systems many of us accepted as innate and fixed. As the world begins to settle and pivot, more testing and improvement will be necessary for many organizations’ sustainability.

Continuous improvement addresses the various demands on a system to perform beyond baseline. Shift’s approach to continuous improvement integrates more than a century of improvement science with contemporary human-centered design principles. We believe the people most impacted by a system are best positioned to redesign it. We seek to understand the unique context where a system operates, whether healthcare or early childhood education, to improve systems that serve people in the real world. Improvement with an equity imperative!  

I may not be able to sit down with my grandpa and hear about his work and tell him about what I’ve been up to, but looking at his accomplishments filed away in boxes, I can see the evidence of his constant and continuous work toward always making his field and our world just a little better.

Engineering Publications

From Grandpa's Archive: Issues from Mechanical Engineering and Space/Aeronautics

Need a crash course or refresher on Continuous Improvement with practical strategies in Improvement Science?

Check out our video, Introduction to Improvement.

These videos were produced in a response to the need for digital/virtual resources during the pandemic. Shift created a series of 16 videos focused on core ideas, methods, and practices of Continuous Improvement.

Video: Introduction to Improvement


The Shift Approach

Georgia DECAL is an example of a Shift project that offers a window into the ways our team uses Continuous Improvement with organizations using their established Quality Assurance system. 

If you’re curious about quality improvement and Shift’s approach to continuous improvement, you can read more about our work with Georgia DECAL here. The goal at the center of this collaboration was driven by the front line of childcare centers, to infuse and embed a culture of inclusive improvement approaches. Because quality improvement pushes beyond the goals of quality assurance, this work promotes the potential for moving top performers higher.

If you want to know more about the field of quality improvement and/or Shift’s approach, you can find more videos here.

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