If you take the time to read any of the standards, frameworks, models or manifestos associated with organisational maturity such as CMMI, Lean Software Development, ISO 9000, or Agile it won’t take you long to find a reference to Continuous Improvement. This is the “Holy Grail” of process improvement and the quest for organizational excellence and maturity, where the business finally reaches a state where it is stable enough to make small, effective and seamless improvements on an almost daily basis.
I’ve worked in and with lots of organisations who believe they have continuous improvement embedded in their operations. Many of them have been appraised at CMMI Level 3, many of them are ISO 9000 certified, and lots of them have improvement programmes and projects in place which testify to the fact that continuous improvement is standard practice.
But dig below the surface and it doesn’t take long to realise that, in the majority of these organisations, continuous improvement is an illusion. Despite continuous improvement processes and on-going improvement programmes, what really happens is continuous tinkering.
There is a world of difference between continuous improvement and continuous tinkering. The most important is that to establish the bedrock for continuous improvement requires an awful lot of hard work and an inherent desire at all levels of the organisation to make it happen. All the appraisals and certifications in the world won’t help if that desire and commitment is missing at any point in the organisational structure.
Continuous tinkering, on the other hand, is really easy. Lots of managers do it every day. Lots of executives do it on a regular basis. Far too many process improvement and quality “experts” spend all their time doing it. Politicians devote their lives to it. Given the self fulfilling adage that the only constant is change, tinkering is a natural behaviour of many people in many organisations. Tinkering allows people to be seen to be doing something “useful” and to help establish themselves in their working environments. Following organisational restructuring or management succession for whatever reason, there is inevitably a spate of tinkering as new department heads and their new appointees strive to make their mark.
Most people would agree that tinkering is probably not a very good idea. This is confirmed by my dictionary definition “do random, unplanned work or activities” and accentuated by an earlier definition from 1658 “to keep busy in a useless way”. This of course begs the question that if you think (or even know) it is a bad thing to engage in why do you do it?
But let’s first establish a shared understanding of why tinkering is a bad thing especially in an organisational context. (These are just a few reasons which spring to mind that I’ve had direct experience of. I’m sure you have plenty more of your own!)
- It rarely adds genuine value to anyone although it may add perceived value to the perpetrator
- It is generally disruptive and has a knock on effect of curtailing normal operations
- Changes are rarely managed properly and lack an articulated and shared vision, inadequate impact or cost analysis and no defined measures of success
- Tinkering rarely offers sustainable change as the next person will engage in their own tinkering activities to undo the current change
- It is usually top-down and staff rarely have any say or buy-in in the implementation
- Good practices may be lost in the change
- Effective teams are often split up in needless organisational tinkering
- Tinkering to address the “not invented here” syndrome is unlikely to be cost effective or gain much support from staff
- It really annoys staff
Now let’s think about continuous improvement when it is done properly:
- Changes are considered before being implemented, in other words they are scoped, planned, discussed, and staff have the chance to buy-in
- Continuous improvement is usually initiated bottom-up by the people closest to the problem being addressed
- Impacts in terms of cost, effort, time and expected behaviours are considered
- Impacts on existing processes, practices and organisational elements are considered
- Impacts on other parts of the organisation are considered, changes are holistic rather than sub-optimal
- Changes that do not add value to multiple stakeholders would not normally be undertaken
- Changes are managed and measures put in place to understand the success of the change (not targets and arbitrary metrics)
- Staff embrace the changes as being of value
It is quite clear from these basic differences that a different mindset is required to undertake continuous improvement as opposed to continuous tinkering. In the 25+ years I’ve been working I’ve only occasionally been exposed to an environment that is committed to genuine continuous improvement. Those very rare occasions share one thing in common –leaders who understand the difference between tinkering and improving. Sadly, those few environments have only been transitory and an organisational restructure or two later they have been consigned to memories of what could have been if that understanding had gone higher up the executive chain.
Sadly, our much of our legacy seems built around the fact that the only constant is worthless change, and change for the sake of change rather than for the sake of the pursuit of excellence.