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Continuous Improvement Isn't Continuous

Yesterday morning, I was chatting with Tom Meloche, and in the course of the conversation, we came up with over a week’s worth of article topics. First up is “continuous improvement.” The idea behind continuous improvement arguably started with Frederick Winslow Taylor. Taylorism was all about having a systematic approach to improving.

What followed has been an endless stream of repackaged tweaks of the idea of systematic improvement. For the longest time, it was the provenance of leaders to design, engineer, and orchestrate periodic improvement initiatives.

Eventually, W. Edwards Deming introduced the idea of “continuous” cycles to improvement. His “Plan, Do, Check, Act” cycle is still the basis for continuous improvement practices everywhere. Toyota Motor Corporation used (and continues to use) PDCA to challenge incumbents in the automotive industry (although everyone else has adopted some variation by now).

But is it continuous? To me, continuous implies a flow state. If you’ve ever been engaged in an activity and achieved a flow state, you remember it! There’s nothing more beautiful for the mind, body, and spirit than the generating output in that mode.

As a Trekkie, I am reminded of the movie Star Trek Generations. In it, Malcolm McDowell plays Dr. Soran, a seeming madman who is trying to get back The Nexus, a strange energy field. Soran’s compulsion to return to that field is an overblown version of how I feel about returning to a flow state. Whether I’m creating music or working with a team, it’s always a beautiful moment.

With a heavy heart, I conclude that there is no flow state for improvement. Each day, we go to work in order to serve our customers (be they internal or external). While improving what we work on and how we execute that work ultimately benefits our customers, we need to keep the lights on while we’re conjuring up the next improvement effort. It’s not continuous. It can’t be continuous.

Improvement can and should be regular. We can even bake the seeds of improvement into our everyday work. Unfortunately, improvements cost us something -- maybe a little or a lot, but something. The rest of the time, we need to be earning to pay the bills. Continuous improvement is a myth.

Even if you perform regular improvement activities, what is most important is figuring out how to evaluate the benefit you derived from the effort. All too often, teams implement changes, and if nobody dislikes the change, they call it a win. Improvement must be measured. Both Taylor and Deming understood this.

Since improvement is not a continuous process, it must have a beginning, middle, and end. The end is deciding to keep the change based on whether it achieved an improved state. By getting out of the “continuous” headspace, we can give more consideration to our options for improvement. We can design the effort to achieve a well-defined, measurable outcome. And we can choose when to make the investments required.

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