Let us answer the question right away – yes, they are. If you do not know where you are, how do you know where you’re going?

Assessments are vital for many things in life; they provide diagnosis for illness at the hospital, troubleshooting for defects at the auto repair shop, and knowledge about your maturity in continuous improvement (CI). Some kind of assessment is critical for any successful change programme. But, assessments can backfire badly if you do not use them wisely. After more than 6 years experience with lean assessments in the global Volvo Group, we have seen both advantages and disadvantages. Here are a few tips for the road.

What gets measured, gets done

Peter Drucker’s famous saying “what gets measured, gets done” is popular because it is true. An assessment is not merely an audit of the current status. It also suggests the wanted position. It creates a strong “expected-to improve” environment, and it indicates were to go next. Thus, an assessment provides focus for the improvement, fosters attention from management, and creates a desire for good scores throughout the organisation. Because assessments motivate actions, one should not go easy with them. If not designed carefully they drive the wrong behaviours. One should take great care in developing assessments that are helpful for the organisation. Blindly copying other firms’ assessments is a dangerous route. What gets measured, gets done, so be sure to measure what you want to be done.

What level of assessments do you need?

Assessments can go on forever. At what level of detail to stop and how to organise the audit are critical questions to ask. Companies need to decide what works for them. They can use formal, group-wide audit schemes or simple self-assessments carried out by the units themselves. Assessments can be qualitative, quantitative or both. Whatever design is chosen, we think the most important thing is to engage the people who are actually working in the unit that is being assessed. In fact, the learning that happens in the process is much more helpful than the result itself.

Multinational companies with many sites may even want to differentiate the approach for plants at different levels of CI maturity. In The Volvo Group, we have found that differentiation is needed. For plants that have barely started the CI journey, the assessments can be too harsh and even de-motivating when results are unexpectedly poor. Assessments are needed at this level, but they need not be so comprehensive. For the mid-mature plants, the assessment has been most helpful. For the best plants, the assessment frequently only offers limited benefits. These plants are already very good and they need to seek improvement outside generic assessments of CI maturity.

Never forget the purpose of the assessment

What is the purpose of the assessment? Sometimes when people start doing assessments, they fall in love with the process itself and forget about why they do so in the first place. The big point is, of course, to provide the units with a roadmap to improve. Too many times the organisation being assessed becomes defensive and wants to justify a score, turning it into unhealthy competition. Therefore, be careful with celebrating good scores and linking assessment scores with bonuses and fringe benefits. Instead, celebrate the real improvements in operational performance that follow from succeeding with the CI journey.

The result of the assessment means nothing if the unit being assessed does not move forward later. Assessments can be powerful, if deployed wisely. Good luck with your assessments, but most importantly, your improvement.