Should organizations focus on continual improvement or swing for the home run? To answer, we should ask ourselves two questions. “Are we making progress?” and “Are we better than competitors to the point of having a strategic advantage?”
Dr. Joseph M. Juran spoke and wrote at length on this topic and displayed his concept of “continuous improvement gained through hundreds of projects” with his “spiral of progress in quality.” Juran believed as organizations take action to make improvements, the performance and success of the company “spirals” upward. Each completed project is a step up the spiral staircase. Subsequently, each improvement builds upon the previous one to take the organization to greater heights and levels of achievement. Dr. Juran’s philosophy, as a powerful and effective quality improvement methodology, has revolutionized industry.
During a recent quality class, a student asked what “speed of improvement” is needed for an organization to be successful. This is not an easy question to answer. In my 45 years of experience, the answer is not how fast improvement is being made but whether it is happening at all!
On the surface, it would seem that the faster improvements are made, the better. That may not be the case at all, as there is some evidence existing which tends to support the opposite. We would suggest that several factors need to be considered as to how fast continuous improvement should occur.
Few organizations really have an effective corrective and preventive action system that provides fuel for improvement. There may be a framework of such a system that would satisfy a third party auditor during surveillance audits; however, few companies actually leverage their corrective and preventive action process to make dramatic changes that may have a greater impact on the bottom line. To make the point, it is not how fast high profile continuous improvement occurs but if organizations are really doing it at all.
If an organization has a corrective and preventive action system that is effective and deployed across the organization, it might be one of the few that really does. This is a systemic issue for most organizations.
Thus, it is not a matter of how fast improvements are made, but that the quality system is delivering major value to the organization through continuous improvement while their competitors’ quality system most likely is not.
If an organization is making significant improvements that drive Juran’s spiral of improvement UPWARD, then the issue of how fast to go still begs for an answer. As a Juranite, I’ve always prescribed to the recipe that continual improvement, over the long haul, one step (or project) at a time, will get an organization farther than waiting for the “long ball.” There are always exceptions to the rule, much like a breakthrough product, but that’s a different issue. The needs or demands of the consumer would drive that effort, cost millions of dollars and several years of research and development.
Continual improvement usually involves making changes, and changes are usually disruptive and uncomfortable to the organization. It can be supported that “the only people who like change are babies with wet diapers.”
Managers have a vital responsibility to their people and their organizations to drive improvement, but also to gage the rate of change their groups can effectively tolerate and absorb. When rates of change and improvement are high, employees may be so uncomfortable and even disoriented that any efficiency gained from process improvement may be lost with an unproductive staff.
People tend to respond better to gentle, constant pressure to change over time. Giving employees time to settle in and get comfortable with change to one process while applying slight, but constant, pressure to improve a different process works well toward moving up the “staircase of the spiraling improvement.”
There are many examples of the heroic, rapid change approach to improvement and they can be very effective. However, there are many other examples in which people burn out, turn on the manager or organization, lose passion for what they are doing, and maybe leave the company. As a rule, long term results are rarely achieved even though some organizations, or managers, are often seen as successful for short-term, short-lived results.
In the long-term, across industry, many companies have tended to demonstrate that incremental improvement has outperformed “postponed perfection” and heroic efforts to make the transformation with breakthrough improvement. There is no doubt that successful organizations need both but organizations that subscribe to a culture of sustained improvement have historically “won” in the long run.