Probing the Limits

March 18, 2006
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Making real, high-level continual improvement is more of an issue than the speed of improvement.

Is your company continually improving or continually stuck? I think this is an important question to determine if a company is using their quality system to gain a strategic advantage over their competitors.

Juran illustrated this in his "spiral of progress in quality" concept. To simply restate the concept, as organizations take action to make improvements in their products and processes, the performance and success of the company spirals up. Each completed improvement action is a step up a spiral staircase. Each additional improvement builds upon the previous one to take the organization to higher levels of achievement. This is a very powerful and effective quality improvement approach.

Recently, I was asked what speed of improvement (or spiraling-up) is needed for an organization to be successful. I found the question difficult to answer, and decided that the most important issue was not how fast continual improvement was happening, but if it was happening at all.

On the surface, it seems that the faster improvements are made, the better. My experience does not support this, though. There are several factors to consider in how fast continual improvement and change should occur.

First, I think that few organizations truly have an effective corporate corrective and preventive action system. Sure, they have a system that they show their ISO auditor during audits, but very few companies really leverage their corrective and preventive action system to make big-picture changes that have a major effect on the bottom line. For this reason, it is less a matter of how fast a company is making real, high-level continual improvement, but if they are really doing it at all.

If a company truly has a corrective and preventive action system that is used at a corporate level, it is probably one of the few-if not the only organization in the industry-that does. If this is the case, it is not a matter of how fast improvements are being made, but that the quality system is delivering major value to the organization while the competitors' quality system is not. In most industries, even slow improvement will be a major strategic advantage that the quality system contributes, as long as the improvement efforts are high-level changes that truly will affect the organization's results.

If an organization really is making significant business improvements that drive "spiraling-up," then the issue of how fast to go still remains. I've always been a proponent of the slow and steady approach over the fast and heroic method.

Continual improvement usually involves making changes, and changes are disruptive and uncomfortable-and for good reason. If change were perfectly comfortable, we would be living in a state of chaos. Managers have a vital responsibility in their organizations to drive improvement, but also to gage what rate of change their groups can effectively tolerate. If the rate of improvement and change is very high, the employees will be so uncomfortable and even disoriented, that any efficiency gains from process improvements will be lost with unproductive employees.

I've found that employees respond well to gentle, constant pressure to change over time. Giving employees time to settle-in and get comfortable with a recent change to one process while applying gentle pressure to improve a different, older process works well toward spiraling-up the performance staircase.

I've seen managers try the heroic, rapid change approach to organization improvement and it is only effective for a short period of time, if even that. People burn out, turn on the manager, lose passion for what they are doing or just quit. Long-term results are rarely achieved even though these managers are often seen as successful for their short-term, short-lived results.

If your company's improvement systems are not working at a high level, work to move the focus of that direction so the quality system can deliver greater results. Once that is achieved, work to balance the rate of change so that products and processes are getting better all the time, but employees are not disoriented with the rate of change. This will cause a consistent climb up the continual improvement spiral staircase that few, if any, competitors will be able to match.

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