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Method study is the process of subjecting work to systematic, critical scrutiny in order to make it more effective and/or more efficient.

It was originally designed for the analysis and improvement of repetitive, manual work, but it can be used for all types of activity at all levels of an organisation.

The process is often seen as a linear, described by its main steps of:

  • Select (the work to be studied);
  • Record (all relevant information about that work);
  • Examine (the recorded information);
  • Develop (an improved way of doing things);
  • Install (the new method as standard practice);
  • Maintain (the new standard proactive).

Although this linear representation shows the underlying simplicity of method study, in practice the process is much more one of iteration around the above steps with each dominating at a different stage of the investigation.

The cyclic process often starts with a quick, rough pass in which preliminary data are collected and examined, before subsequent passes provide and handle more comprehensive and more detailed data to obtain and analyse a more complete picture.

Work is selected for method study on the basis of it being an identified problem area or an identified opportunity (resulting from a systematic review of available data, normal monitoring or control processes, high levels of dissatisfaction and complaint or as part of a management-derived change in policy, practice, technology or location), and usually because it meets certain conditions of urgency and/or priority.

Before any method study investigation is begun, it is necessary to establish clear terms of reference which define the aims, scale, scope and constraints of the investigation. This should also include an identification of who "owns" the problem or situation and ways in which such "ownership" is shared. This may lead to a debate on the aims of the project, on reporting mechanisms and frequencies, and on the measures of success. This process is sometimes introduced as a separate and distinct phase of method study, as the "define" stage. It leads to a plan for the investigation which identifies appropriate techniques, personnel, and timescale.

The Record stage of method study is to provide sufficient data (in terms of both quality and quantity) to act as the basis of evaluation and examination. A wide range of techniques are available for recording; the choice depends on the nature of the investigation and the work being studied, and on the level of detail required. Many of the techniques are simple charts and diagrams, but these may be supplemented by photographic and video recording, and by computer based techniques.

Especially with "hard" (clearly defined) problems, method study often involves the construction and analysis of models, from simple charts and diagrams used to record and represent the situation to full, computerised simulations. Manipulation of and experimentation on the models leads to ideas for development.

The recorded data are subjected to examination and analysis; formalised versions of this process are critical examination and systems analysis. The aim is to identify, often through a structured, questioning process, those points of the overall system of work that require improvements or offer opportunity for beneficial change.

The Examine stage merges into the Develop stage of the investigation as more thorough analysis leads automatically to identified areas of change. The aim here is to identify possible actions for improvement and to subject these to evaluation in order to develop a preferred solution.

Sometimes it is necessary to identify short-term and long-term solutions so that improvements can be made (relatively) immediately, while longer-term changes are implemented and come to fruition.

The success of any method study project is realised when actual change is made 'on the ground' - change that meets the originally specified terms of reference for the project. Thus, the Install phase is very important. Making theoretical change is easy; making real change demands careful planning - and handling of the people involved in the situation under review. They may need reassuring, retraining and supporting through the acquisition of new skills. Install, in some cases ,will require a parallel running of old and new systems, in others, it may need the build-up of buffer stocks, and in others ..... what matters is that the introduction of new working methods is successful. There is often only one chance to make change!

Some time after the introduction of new working methods, it is necessary to check that the new method is working, that it is being adhered to, and that it has brought about the desired results. This is the Maintain phase. Method drift is common - when people start to either revert to old ways of working, or introduce new changes. Some of these may be helpful (and should formally be incorporated); others may be inefficient or unsafe. A methods audit can be used to formally compare practice with the defined method and identify such 'irregularities'.




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