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Continuous Improvement Is Not Enough

Jan. 10, 2014
Improvement is not enough; direction is needed to complete the equation.

During the year-end holidays I take time to think deeply about the direction my personal life and businesses are moving towards. Speaking truthfully, I struggle with balance between a short-term and long-term focus. One of the first questions I ask is: Is the Liker Leadership Institute moving in the right direction?

The Liker Leadership Institute is an online focused business with global reach through an online course that teaches True Lean from one of the most respected experts in the industry—Jeffrey K. Liker. This fact is simply not enough to determine whether the business is being developed in the right areas. I think it’s natural to relate success to short-term financial performance, but having read and applied lessons from Toyotas’ playbook, I know that long-term thinking must win the war over short-terms gains.

Toyota drove Vision into its manufacturing facilities by providing a True North that comes out of building a culture of excellence through continuous improvement and respect for people. In his book Toyota Kata, Mike Rother identifies the ideal condition as having the following four attributes:

  • Zero defects
  • 100% value added
  • One-piece flow, in sequence, on demand
  • Security for people.

Each of these attributes represents a vision (direction) to the improvement activities that any organization in the pursuit of excellence should strive towards. Rother also emphasizes that the world is complex, dynamic and replete with uncertainty. Therefore, the road to getting to True North is not known, or even identified, but what is clear is that continuous improvement means closing the gap incrementally, between the current state and this ideal state. Rother suggests we do this by defining a set of very specific and measureable “target conditions” that we work step-by-step to achieve.

There was a movie made some time ago called “City Slickers” where Billy Crystal’s character, Mitch, receives some serious advice from Curly, played by Jack Palance:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [holds up one finger] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don’t mean s***.

Mitch: But, what is the “one thing”?

Curly: That’s what you have to find out.

Well, I am here to tell you that I have figured out that “one thing” for myself. I know that developing lean leaders who strive for excellence in everything they do represents their one thing that I am devoted to helping organizations achieve. What is your “one thing”?

Regardless of your one thing, the next question will be, “How do I get there?” Jeff Liker has taken time to create an online course that describes the step-by-step process that makes this happen. So, one option is to take the Toyota Way to Lean Leadership online course that includes coaches to help you practice defining the direction and executing the improvement process from start to finish. Mike Rother has a handbook that paints a clear picture of how to define and achieve target conditions through a practiced set of routines called the “improvement kata.” Both methods have in common the need to learn by deliberate practice with a seasoned coach.

Think well and prosper in 2014.

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