Avoiding the discomfort of continual improvement can threaten the survival of organizations.

When it comes to continual improvement, I often hear Rodney King's famous quote ringing in my head and holding us back from making important changes: "Can't we all just get along?"

Continually improving quality and performance is a cornerstone of the quality profession. To make things better, we must change them. When we think about opportunities for change, we think about creating new processes or systems, automating functions, conducting training and improving skill levels, or doing studies to find root causes and fixing them. These are fundamental continual improvement methods.

Anyone involved in continual improvement projects knows that making such changes is not easy. Change often is uncomfortable for people and can cause friction and unrest in organizations. It's natural for humans to be uncomfortable with the unknown that change brings, and thus, resist it. People skilled at implementing change understand how others will react and put as much effort into communicating and calming as they do making process changes.

What frustrates me, though, is when good opportunities for change exist but are not pursued. Many people don't want to rock the boat and throw a perfectly comfortable organization into unrest by taking advantage of an opportunity to make a change and move the organization forward. When I propose a major change that brings friction and discomfort to the group, I often see more effort put into maintaining the harmony of the status quo than finding a way to take advantage of the opportunity to improve. I often observe many organizations making this choice.

When I hear of businesses failing or moving work overseas, I often wonder how much of their failure is because of focusing on "just getting along" at the expense of the uncomfortable journey to become more competitive.

Looking at the origin of the "can't we all just get along" quote is insightful. On March 3, 1991, Rodney King, an unarmed black man was severely beaten by several white policemen during an arrest. The incident exposed major problems in Los Angeles. Inexcusable stories of violence and racism in the Los Angeles Police Department were exposed. Many people felt that the justice system failed in the criminal acquittal of the police officers that beat King. Major racial and economic tensions between blacks and whites erupted into violence. Racial tensions between the black community and the Asian community also turned violent. King himself exposed the issue of habitual criminals in the community. These all are huge problems. After more than 50 people were killed, more than 2,000 injured and $1 billion in damage, King commented, "Can't we all just all get along?"

No. I say let's not try to just get along with major multi-ethnic racial tensions, major economic problems, a corrupt police force, a broken legal system and habitual criminals running around loose. If we just go back to trying to just get along, we'll continue with this horrible state of affairs. Each of these problems needs to be studied and fixed for the survival of the community. Just trying to get along probably is the worst thing that can be done.

The King riots are an extreme, but a vivid example of how people and organizations often are more afraid of change than a state of affairs that could kill them. I see this take place on a micro-scale every day in almost every meeting I attend. Rather than stepping on toes, bringing a problem to light or embarrassing someone by suggesting that uncomfortable change be initiated, we often choose to stay in our comfortable and suboptimal rut.

I believe that the success of an established business can be measured by its ability to realistically see problems and opportunities and react to make changes quickly. During a time when many quality professionals are trying to find their place in an organization, I continue to feel that the skills of continually improving are the most valuable asset a company can have. Quality professionals need to develop better human-issue handling skills during change-a doable task.

Just getting along makes for an easy, comfortable day. I believe that this approach to issues is the underlying defect that kills many organizations. As expert continual improvers, quality professions need to effectively manage the emotional discomfort of change while also pressing on to make changes that are vital to competitiveness and survival of American businesses.

Scott Dalgleish is chief operating officer at Spectra Logic Corp. (Boulder,

CO) and an ASQ certified quality

manager. Let Scott know what you

think at [email protected].