"Do the best you can until you know better..." - Maya Angelou
This is #13.
Today I was wondering why I haven't written about continuous improvement yet. It is actually one of the few things I claim to have a profound understanding of (some beg to differ...) - mostly concerning the continuous improvement as defined through the Toyota Production System that's been invented and constantly developed since WWII.
Continuous improvement is a process, therefore it is commonly known by its short form: CIP (Continuous Improvement Process). My definition of continuous improvement goes like this: CIP is the dedication to constantly challenge the status quo and improve the current state by making many small changes, ideally every day.
I am most probably going to write a longer article about continuous improvement and the whole philosophy behind it at a later stage, but for today I want to share two key aspects of it that I have taken from my professional career and adopted to my every day life.
During the last couple of years I have mainly executed projects that dealt with small, medium and large scale transformations. The typical approach of these transformations was to assess the current situation thoroughly and define an ambitious goal based on data gathering and analysis, for example to increase productivity of a specific production line by 30% or to decrease the cost of something, a process or a product, by half.
After that it was required to lay out all the necessary steps to reach that goal and define a timeline to achieve it - it didn't necessarily have to be the shortest possible amount of time but it was always required to set a reasonable and challenging time frame. Finally, we - together with our clients - implemented all the necessary adaptions and improvements.
The downsides are that transformation projects can be painful for the workforce because they have to deal with a lot of change in a short amount of time. The changes that have been made usually won't stick because most of the time there has been no change in behavior or mindset. Therefor, there is an acute risk that people will fall back into old habits and won't adapt to the new processes. Ultimately the improvements that have been made might disappear as quickly as it appeared in the first place - and from what I have learned this happens to more than every second transformation project.
The CIP is different. And to this day I believe it is more effective on the long run, although a lot less sexy for most organizations (and most consulting companies for that matter). It's also way harder to implement because it requires above mentioned changes in mindset and behavior... But it works.
Let me explain this by taking it out of the business context - because I think more of us can relate. Oftentimes we think that change is only meaningful if there is some large, visible outcome associated with it. We often put immense pressure on ourselves to make some earth-shattering improvements that everyone will talk about. The effort we put into these things followed by the lack of appreciation of others and the realization that most of these undertakings don't have a long lasting positive effect leave us frustrated more often than not.
"Meanwhile, improving by just 1 percent isn't notable (and sometimes it isn't even noticeable). In the beginning, there is basically no difference between making a choice that is 1 percent better or 1 percent worse. In other words, it won't impact you very much today. But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you suddenly find a very big gap between people who make slightly better decisions on a daily basis and those who don't." - James Clear
One key aspect of CIP that helped me a lot is this: do more of what already works. No matter the circumstances, there are things in your private as well as in your professional life that deliver good results or make you more productive or just make you feel better overall.
You can ask yourself: What am I already doing that makes me healthier? What is it that makes me more productive? But also: What positive feedback have I received from others for things that I have done? Try to break these things down to specific tasks. I know, you've probably heard it a million times, but the simple things which bear a tendency to annoy us at times are the ones that probably create the most benefit on the long run - flossing, being on time, unplugging that smart phone charger, wiping down the countertop...
The second aspect is as simple as the first one but can be even more effective: avoid tiny losses. In many cases, improvement is not about doing more things right, but about doing fewer things wrong. Avoiding losses is a core concept of the CIP. At the center of this is a thing called "muda" in Japanese, it can be translated to "waste".
The concept behind it is "improvement by subtraction", which is focused on doing less of what doesn't work: eliminating mistakes, reducing complexity, stripping away the inessential. Oftentimes, it can be easier to reduce the downsides instead of creating more upsides.
There are hundreds of examples on how to approach this, but in my opinion a few simple questions are enough to start in invaluable thought process, for example: What is annoying me at work? What is holding me back from doing what is necessary? How can I limit my risks at the stock market? Should I really eat that? Why didn't I think of this in the first place? ...
One final thing I want to share is this: balance investments you are considering against making improvements with what you already have.
While I still think from time to time that buying a new laptop makes me a better writer, getting those new kicks makes me a faster runner and ordering food instead of making it myself makes me eat better, I have come to realize that it's more often than not better to just try and do things with what you already have and improve your core skills by doing so. If you are a bad cook, avoiding cooking won't make you better. Cooking that steak yourself, first burning it, then under-cooking it and ultimately finding the sweet spot does. And it's a million times more satisfying than receiving a cold pizza from that delivery service...
This article was inspired by the book Atomic Habits and a few articles written by the Author James Clear (https://jamesclear.com) - here's a link to his book (Amazon Affiliate Link: )
And here are a few books in case you are interested in some good literature about CIP and the Toyota Production System:
The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2V7JHng)
The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2V2639Z)
Running Lean by Ash Maurya (Amazon Affiliate Link: https://amzn.to/2RciZIZ)