Continuous Improvement -- Forward Ho!

For an organization to evolve, a conviction that there are infinite opportunities for improvement is required.

The foundation of continuous improvement is the belief that your organization can always be doing better. Operations can be more efficient. Quality can be improved. Costs can be reduced. Sales can grow faster. And the company can be more profitable. If only everyone worked a little harder and smarter.

The foundation of modern civilization rests on a belief in progress. That society can be more just and humane. That we can, through innovation and initiative, alleviate more human suffering. That more people can find steady work, and live in safety and comfort. That more of us can be spiritually fulfilled and happy. If only we worked a little harder and smarter.

In his 1920 book, "The Idea of Progress," J.B. Bury traces the origins of the concept that "civilization has moved, is moving, and will move in a desirable direction." He noted, despite the recognition by various philosophers -- including Plato, Seneca, St. Augustine and even Machiavelli -- that the state of human affairs had improved during various periods in history, until a few centuries ago there was no expectation that things would continue to get better. Indeed, prevailing thought held that whatever heights had once been attained, civilization was doomed to a long period of stagnation and decline.

Before the idea of progress could take hold, Bury notes, humankind's perception of its place in history had to change. In the late-16th and 17th centuries, although powerful institutions held that the very idea of progress undermined the concepts of divine Providence and the Absolute, revolutionary thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes began to attack the notions that the days of the ancient Greeks and the Roman Empire represented a golden age that we could never hope to regain, and that the purpose of human existence had nothing to do with further development on earth, but with securing the happiness of a select few in the next world. Because it instilled an attitude of diffidence and despair, Bacon regarded such fatalist dogma as the greatest obstacle to the advancement of knowledge.

Likewise, in the business world, unconstructive belief systems can be the greatest obstacle to continually moving forward. Anyone who has ever led a major improvement initiative knows how difficult and how long it can take to overcome everyone's misgivings. That's why communication is so important. Mimicking the evolution of scientific thought, new ideas have to be presented. Experimental results need time to be replicated. People need time to adjust and to see for themselves that any changes are indeed better. Of course there's always a vocal minority who will do everything they can to sabotage any effort that requires them to think or act differently.

Complacency is highest at companies that have achieved some measure of success. Record profit announcements almost never include a statement that the future looks less bright. On the contrary, the idea of progress has become so ingrained in our culture today that executives and managers at high-flying firms often become so enamored of their own achievements that they doggedly cling to what got them there, turning a deaf ear to new ideas and market changes, thereby sowing the seeds of their eventual decline. Real progress requires constant innovation.

Taking a cue from the unprecedented period of scientific, technological and cultural advancement that we find ourselves in, progressive manufacturing companies that are dedicated to continuous improvement are always evaluating and embracing new concepts and business practices. Their managers recognize that sustainable profitability, which makes everybody happy, requires constant adjustments. Those who can't change are destined for the Dark Ages.

David Drickhamer is IndustryWeek's Editorial Research Director.

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