Seven Sayings for Successful Continuous Improvement

Posted on 28 Jan 2010 by The Manufacturer

By lean guru Jon Miller of Gemba Research

Getting started with continuous improvement is easy but keeping it going is hard. Even though we speak of long-term thinking as one of the central tenets of continuous improvement and kaizen, many of us opt for the short-term actions, focusing more on “improvement” than the “continuous”. It was probably a wise old farmer reflecting back on a life of toil in the soil who said:

If you want to prosper for a year, grow rice. If you want to prosper for a decade, plant trees. If you want to prosper for a century, grow people.

Continuous improvement is powered by people, their ideas and the drive to make things better. If we look back on our lives, we all started out with the purest motives for improvement: curiosity as children. We are inherently curious and creative as children. Yet gradually we lose these powers as we are taught to fit within society, gain responsibilities and “mature” into adults. Thankfully it is never too late to change our incredibly adaptive and plastic minds. Within organizations, we need to deliberately make a safe place for creativity and curiosity.

The one who says “it cannot be done” should not interrupt the one doing it.

Do you consider yourself creative? Do you have insufficient opportunities to express your creativity at work? Does your employer value creativity and innovation? Does your employer lack effective processes to enable innovation? In too many workplaces today the surprising answer to all of these questions is often “yes”. However, many employers and leaders struggle or even fail to make the connection between the need of the organization to be innovative, efficient, and delivering a profit to the shareholders with the ability of people to be creative. One of the great things about lean, kaizen as systems of continuous improvement is that they teach people how to look at their work, identify waste, and creatively redesign processes and systems that leave out this waste. Many times this is simply a matter of being prepared, organized and doing today’s work today. Perhaps this English saying is familiar?

A stitch in time saves nine.

Saves nine what, you may ask. Stitches, presumably. The meaning of this expression is that timely action saves you from much extra work later. Searching, redoing, rearranging are all part of the “nine” or added work and rework that we do when the process is not intelligent. But where to find the blueprint for such intelligent processes, or ways of redesigning our work methods? Wise words from the East tell us:

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.

As the Japanese did 60 years ago when they sought out the ingenuity and best practices from American industry and its wise men like Dr. Deming, so again today we should seek best practices far and wide. Shamelessly sharing successes and failures equally helps us all continuously improve. Whenever we are confronted with a new challenge, we should first look to tried and true solutions. We all need to find a teacher – a sensei – someone who has gone down that road and is on their way back, willing to help. And when we humble ourselves to learn, we should not just nod our head and say, “Yes, I understand” and be too quick to act, but write down what we have learned so we can read back over it. A Chinese saying tells us:

The palest ink is better than the strongest memory

Toyota vice president and architect of TPS Taiichi Ohno taught us that continuous improvement must begin and end with a standard, and that these standards must be written down. One of the protests against documentation within the continuous improvement process is that this slows down the pace of change, even the pace of learning. Better to work on more improvements than to create detailed documentation to show what we did, goes the argument. Another old saying from China tells us:

Do not be afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still.

In light of the current stagnant economies which are in part a result from rapid growth fueled by artificial demand, speculation and bubble markets, these words seem particularly wise. If we grow or attempt to improve so fast that we fall and break our leg, we will not even be standing, just still. The last of the seven sayings for successful continuous improvement comes from Japan and reminds us that it is important not only that we come back from the current adversity but that we are prepared to bounce back from the next one:

Fall down seven times, get up eight.

The unrelenting persistence to try one more time after any failure separates the unsuccessful continuous improvement efforts from the successful ones. Continuous improvement only fails when you stop trying.

So I guess we need an eighth saying… Let’s hear from you. What quotes, proverbs, scriptures or sayings from your part of the world give you courage and inspire you to keep continuous improvement going?

Email your answers to [email protected] or leave a comment below.

By Jon Miller of Gemba research and Gemba Panta Rei blog.