Working on it is better than not working on it

Break glass in case of failure.

Working on it is better than not working on it
Photo by Philipp Deus / Unsplash

Continuous improvement doesn’t mean that people are thinking about problems and waste all of the time. Most of the time, people are doing whatever they are actually trying to accomplish. Doing the work.

In the course of events, sometimes people see problems, notice errors, or uncover waste. At these moments, people in a learning organization have an opportunity (and responsibility) to stop what they are doing and take some space to identify, develop, and remove the problems, errors, or waste using simple tools and formats that are known to all.

This is a healthier, more humane response to errors than you find in most work spaces or organizations. People can laser beam in on developing each other, increasing the flow of work to and from their collaborators, and building quality into the work—rather than the default responses of either

  • searching for somebody to hold accountable, or
  • being stressed out, in a low grade, unceasing fashion, by unsolved problems that capture attention.

It is also a systematic, more structured response to errors. In a learning organization, people know the tools and standards for continuous improvement, and people at all levels of the organization can see and participate in problem-solving.

Learning to improve

When a group decides to give continuous improvement a shot, they will quickly get knee-deep in the everyday activity of making more of what customers value while creating less waste. This activity of PDCA—identifying problems, designing countermeasures, trying them out, checking on how they are working, and standardizing on successes—is slower and more involved than anybody thought it would be.

A two-week plan might take an extra week before it gets started, and then take a week longer than planned to yield enough information to make any decisions about. Maybe the right people weren’t included. Maybe problem-solvers made bad assumptions about wiggle room in material or technical resources.

Folks can feel pretty discouraged at this point. Things are not going according to plan. It’s slower going, and harder going, than they thought. There is resistance at every turn.

When I notice people going to this place of discouragement, I have a simple message → Working on it is better than not working on it.

The more you do it, the easier it gets.
The more you do it, the more you learn about why plans fail.
The more you do it, the more people see what is happening.
The more you do it, the more ordinary it gets.

Do it enough, and it becomes just what we do around here.

Just make sure to ask “what did you notice?” and incorporate that new knowledge into whatever you try next.

Continuous rather than discrete

In most organizations, improvement is an activity that happens when people remember to do it, or when a special “event” is scheduled by managers or consultants. It’s a big deal. When it happens, it is discrete improvement.

This is a good place to start. Because working on it is better than not working on it.

But it’s not a good place to stay.

When people see that change only happens infrequently, they build towards large, comprehensive “redesigns”—ready-fire-aim productions which sometimes remove some problems, but also leave everybody exhausted and licking their wounds while they wait two (or ten) years for the next redesign.

When people see that change only happens in the limelight, they get skittish. (“I can’t support this experiment because I don’t know if it will work.”)

Continuous improvement is something that happens whenever it needs to happen, with support from people at all levels of the organization. It’s most effective when it’s least exceptional.

So how do you get there? You know what I’m going to say.

You have to work on it.
    Working on it is better than not working on it.
        Do it enough, and it becomes just what we do around here.
               That’s what it’s like to be part of a learning organization.