Continuous Improvement -- Perfect is the Enemy of Good

Jan. 11, 2010
In continuous improvement, the goal is to make a process better. And that's good enough.

While working on a continuous improvement (CI) team, how many times have you been frustrated by the "analysis paralysis" of the team leader/facilitator who is trying to make sure that everything is "right." What's missing is the kaizen or CI philosophy of "Just Do It." In CI, there is no such thing as "right."

One rule that is absolutely true about CI is that your process will not be optimal with the conclusion of your improvement activity. The seasoned veterans of CI will tell you that, in addition to the goal of a 50% improvement in all your metrics (quality, cost, delivery, human development) from your improvement effort, your process will not even be close to optimal until you have gone through the same process at least five times. You should expect the same 50% improvement in your metrics each time your team works on a CI project on the same process.

How can this be? Think about the methodology you use in your CI activities and it becomes obvious. When you and your team go through a process and do a current-state map, you identify the nonvalue-adding activities and brainstorm a future state that removes as many of those as you can with the new process. What this also does is eliminate a lot of waste from the process to make it more visible. When you go through the same process again, additional nonvalue-adding waste can be identified that wasn't visible the first time through. This cycle repeats over and over until you have been through the same process at least five times. It's the old adage of lowering the water level (your CI activities) to expose the rocks. When you remove them (the waste) and lower the water level again, you expose the next layer of rocks that wasn't visible the first time. This is why we call CI a never-ending journey, not a destination. If your organization really commits to a CI journey toward enterprise excellence, you realize there is no end when you think about going through each and every one of your hundreds or thousands of business processes at least five times. If your CI leaders/facilitators think they have to get it "right" when the team works on a process, they will get caught up in "analysis paralysis" instead of "Just Do It" and take forever to implement anything.

There are lots of reasons for this, most of which are due to the culture within the organization. The truly outstanding organizations on the road to enterprise excellence are great at celebrating the efforts and the small wins, not insisting on achieving the goals set by management and punishing those who fail to achieve them. Just like all your other business processes, CI is a process and can be improved but it is not perfect and never will be. It depends on people and, as we all know, people are not perfect. If you want something that will do exactly what it's told to do and will repeat the process exactly each and every time, get a machine, because people don't and they introduce process variability. Along with that, however, you get creativity, problem solving and the ability to improve and make the process better. As a result of having people involved, you have the capability to improve a process, and this is why you should have metrics for human development in your project metrics so you build the capability of your people to contribute to your CI efforts.

Always remember that good is better than nothing, and it's not the end. You should be thinking about making it even better (remember the 50% goal) the next time you address the same process. Just Do It!

Ralph Keller is president of the Association for Manufacturing Excellence, an organization dedicated to cultivating understanding, analysis and exchange of productivity methods and their successful application in the pursuit of excellence. He has been an operations practitioner for the past 35 years.

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