Continuous Improvement Myth
How often do we hear that organisations should ‘continuously improve’ despite it not making sense because it is theoretically and practically impossible - we delude ourselves if we participate in perpetuating such a myth. Stop for a moment and consider what this really means. It implies that organisations should be getting better during every second of their lives, which is clearly absurd. Even the best organisations make improvements in small or big steps and they are inevitably accompanied by concurrent or simultaneous steady or declining performance. Many positive improvement initiatives result from the reactive analysis of things that have gone wrong or have deteriorated. Plan-do-check-act cycles (PDCA) ideally should contain reactive and proactive learning elements fulfilled by ‘Reactive Investigation’ and ‘Planned Monitoring’ respectfully shown in the MSS 1000 figure below.
Improvement can take many forms depending on the type, size and maturity of the organisation e.g.
Improving basic functionality that delivers its purpose, goods and/or services,
Improving internal and external contractual and trading relationships,
Improving social responsibility and ensuring that its stakeholders are equitably satisfied.
Organisations not only need to initiate and nurture improvements such as the above, they need to ensure that they remain aligned with the evolving needs, expectations and aspirations of their stakeholders. This means that organisation must be proactive in attempting to anticipate the potential future needs, expectations and aspirations of the stakeholders despite stakeholders not necessarily being aware of them. We know that what satisfied stakeholders historically would not necessarily satisfy them today and the same will be true for the future.
After long periods of successive improvements, an organisation may approach becoming optimal and subsequently endure by just focusing on remaining equitably aligned with its stakeholder’s needs, expectations and aspirations. Organisations are just super-organisms and in nature, there are enduring species such as the Triops Cancriformis (tadpole shrimp), which was believed to have existed unchanged for 220 million years living long before the dinosaurs appeared and after they disappeared. Organizations do exist with generic unchanging stable objectives and able to demonstrate on-going flawless customer satisfaction. However, an organisation only needs to endure for its intended life although premature death should be avoided as with any organism. An example of a deliberate short life organisations is a construction project organisation established to create an Olympic Games village. A sustainable organisation does not necessarily mean an organisation that is designed to live forever – it must just fulfil its intended purpose.
In practice change and improvement is initiated and implemented via the PDCA management cycle, which operates throughout an organisation from task level up to top management level with varying degrees of effectiveness and efficiency. Although improvement may be suggested at any point in the PDCA cycle it only happens when the agreed action has been implemented i.e. something changes in the way things are done. PDCA change is therefore not ‘continuous’ but ‘continual’. Even quantum physics teaches us that apparent continuous change is an illusion. The reality is that change takes place via quantum jumps – it is only the mind that joins the dots into a continuum.
However noble the aspiration to continuously improve, even the best organisations will contain stagnation and deterioration as they continually attempt to stay aligned with stakeholder’s needs, expectations and aspirations. Improvement can only ever be continual and often involve backward steps before achieving an improvement. Objecting to the use of ‘continuous improvement’ rather than ‘continual improvement’ may seem pedantic but using incorrect terminology can mask ignorance and the deeper understanding of a body of knowledge. If management professionals are to be respected and taken seriously it is important that they not only say the right thing but also understand why it is right.