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Don’t leave home without them: Why assessments are key to reliability success

Sept. 21, 2016
If you want your continuous improvement journey to be a success, the best place to start is with assessing where you are right now.

When we’re about to take a trip, one of the first things we do is figure out where we are going, what it looks like, and what we will need to take along. We may just need clothes and a few essentials. But if we’re planning a big adventure trip, chances are we do some research ahead of time to figure out what we’ll need – and what we might need to acquire before we leave. What kind of fishing gear will we need? Will it snow or do we just need bug spray for the mosquitos? Do we need a fishing license? Maybe it would be a good idea to take those fly-fishing lessons before we get to Montana.

It’s not so different when you’re planning a continuous improvement journey – a trip that you’re hoping will help you improve financial performance by improving the reliability of your people, processes, and assets. To help you plan your trip, you need to do a little research. What’s your starting point and where do you want to go? And how do you need to prepare to make sure you’ll get to your destination as quickly as possible? If you want your continuous improvement journey to be a success, the best place to start is with assessing where you are right now.

Why do organizations do assessments?

Understanding the gaps between your current state and best practice is the starting point for planning a realistic and safe journey to achieving the results of applying best practices. You want to plan the route to get you there most quickly without taking unnecessary risk.

An accurate picture of your current state is clearly important to any effort to improve performance. Organizations consider doing assessments when they want to capture that accurate picture of their current state of operations or baseline performance. It may be planned as the first step in planning for a continuous improvement journey or a specific improvement initiative, or to diagnose the cause of problems that are impacting performance.

Another impetus for doing an assessment is the need to figure out how to measure performance and whether it improves. This need is commonly expressed by the saying “You can’t manage what you do not measure.”

Also, for organizations that use A3s as a management tool for planning and tracking improvement initiatives, an assessment provides the data for the current state and helps to shape the target condition as well.

Ultimately, the picture of your current state becomes valuable when you compare it to benchmark performance and best practice. You may want to compare your performance to industry benchmarks or compare it to best practices. Either way, the value is in understanding the gaps between how you’re currently operating and how you could be operating.

What’s the difference between an audit and an assessment?

An audit is performed to determine whether or not an existing procedure, such as production system startup, is being followed. They are limited in scope and are most useful when valid, best-practice processes and procedures are already in place.

Assessments collect a lot of different data points and perspectives and usually compare that information to a database of best practices. In the case of an organization-wide assessment, it evaluates the culture, processes, procedures and practices that the organization uses to perform business at all levels of the organization. The evaluation compares current performance with that of best-in-class organizations to determine what improvements are possible.

When planning to complete an assessment you need to determine the following elements:

Scope: Are you planning to assess a specific area within the organization or assess the overall performance of the organization? If you are trying to address a specific performance-limiting issue, such as a poorly performing storeroom or shutdown and outage issues, then an assessment of that area’s operating processes and procedures may suffice. Keep in mind, though, that it can be hard to isolate poor performance if the area depends heavily on other functions within the organization. If you have a larger goal in mind, such as improving the reliability of your assets, processes and people or moving from a reactive to a proactive culture, then you will need the scope of your assessment to be much wider so that it captures the relationships and impact between functional areas.

Goal: A defined goal for the assessment will help ensure that you get the information that you need to improve your operation. Identify your expectations for the type of information you’ll get to work with. Defining the goal and your expectations will also help you when planning the communication to employees on why an assessment is necessary and what information will be collected.

Expected outcome: Just as it’s not really useful to do market research or conduct a survey unless it will have an impact on future activities, it’s not productive to complete an assessment unless you know how the results of the assessment will be used to impact planning and future actions your organization will take. An assessment is not an end in itself. It is a starting point to help you plan your journey – how far you need to go and the best route to get there. Be as specific as possible about how you will use the results of the assessment to create your improvement plans and act on them, including confirming the sponsorship and financial support to implement your plans.

Using an internal assessor vs. finding an external partner

Many people ask whether assessments can be done by someone internal to the organization. The answer is yes, with qualifications. The main advantage is cost. It’s going to require less of a cost outlay to use an internal resource. And of course an internal resource will understand how your organization is structured, how it functions and who’s who in the zoo.

About the Author: Catherine Marshall

A director at Life Cycle Engineering, Catherine Marshall helps people and organizations discover solutions that improve performance. She can be reached at [email protected].

However, the old saying “you get what you pay for” usually applies in this context. Here are a few concerns: an internal resource may be too close to the situation to be objective, may feel pressure to shape findings, may not be familiar with industry benchmarks, and may have limited experience with conducting assessments.

An assessment from a knowledgeable, unbiased partner should help you not only identify the most significant gaps, but also should help you pinpoint which areas you should target to improve your performance as quickly as possible. In most cases a professional partner will be able to execute the assessment faster with more accurate results using proven tools, work processes, and reference data to qualify assessment results.

Also, the cost differential between using an internal resource and an external professional partner to conduct an assessment can quickly be recouped by the accurate diagnosis of where the biggest issues and opportunities for improvement lie. Fixing the most critical gaps first will deliver financial returns that exceed the cost of performing a thorough assessment.

If you choose to engage with an assessment partner, here are some factors to consider in order to find the best match for your teams and facility:

  • Does the partner have proven experience conducting assessments like the one you need?
  • Do they have a database of past assessments and industry benchmarks that can be used to score and compare your current state to best practice performance?
  • Have other companies used this partner’s assessment tool to plan and execute successful continuous improvement initiatives?
  • Who actually completes the assessment? Are they data gatherers who use a simple question and answer format or do they use subject matter experts who can use a conversational approach to collect information and evaluate responses? Do they have experienced practitioners that can use field observations to validate what’s captured in conversations?
  • Does the partner have the financial expertise to evaluate your organization’s financial and operational performance? A thorough analysis requires industry experience and an understanding of finance, engineering and operations. This analysis helps to pinpoint the value of improving performance and will help you build the business case for change as well as prove how you can quickly recoup the cost of performing the assessment.


Assessments are an indispensable part of planning a continuous improvement journey. Every journey is a little different and therefore your assessment requirements are going to depend on your organization’s strategy, goals and objectives. As you plan for doing an assessment, invest the time in thinking through your goals, your scope, and who will perform the assessment. Think through how you’ll use the assessment results to drive stronger performance and financial results. And be ready to learn an immense amount about where you are, where you want to go, and how to get there!

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