“He who stops being better stops being good.” — Oliver Cromwell, British soldier and politician.
When he was 10, my son Johnny took guitar lessons. Before long, he’d taught himself to play Sweet Home Alabama. I was impressed—and surprised to discover he wasn’t interested when his guitar teacher offered to show him how to play it even better.
When I asked Johnny why, he just shrugged and told me, “None of my friends play the guitar, so they think it’s cool no matter how I play. I figure I’m good enough, so I don’t need to work to play it better.”
This answer rocked me back on my heels a little. I’ve based my career on helping people continuously improve their productivity, so my dad’s “good enough for government” expression (my dad the retired A.F. Colonel) expression doesn’t fly with me…as I let him know in my ensuing “Mom” lecture. I pointed out, as I would to anyone, that an attitude of continuous improvement represents one of the cornerstones of productivity. After all, the better you become at something, the less work it requires.
Needless to say, I was proud Johnny had taught himself to play the rock classic. But his response to improvement reminds me of those businesses that decide good enough is good enough, so why try harder? They’re the first to suffer when someone in their market decides, “You know what? I think we can do better!” They also tend to give up when the going gets tough.
May I Buy a Vowel?
Continuous improvement doesn’t require unrelenting effort, just a commitment to making sure your reach always exceeds your grasp. Keep pushing the envelope as you go about your daily tasks, and you’ll get better a bit at a time. There’s nothing to it if you can remember your vowels: A, E, I, O, and U.
1. Act on change. In the business arena, nothing stays the same for long. It makes no sense to pick one strategy and stick with it forever. Your processes must evolve along with marketplace conditions and technology, or your business will soon spell ‘failure.’
2. Emphasize teamwork. While you should always encourage personal improvement, it’s difficult to be a rugged individualist on a team. Teamwork, constantly refined and consistently applied, offers the best opportunity for achieving alignment with the organization’s goals and strategies.
3. Innovate and Test. In addition to acting on change, keep tweaking each aspect of your workflow process in an effort to improve. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude doesn’t belong here. But don’t change just to change; test each innovation thoroughly to make sure it actually improves on what it replaces.
4. Organize, organize, organize! You can’t continuously improve if you can’t keep track of everything. Create simple, intuitive filing systems for your information; document each process so new team members can easily get up to speed; and make sure everything has its place, both physically and procedurally.
5. Unleash creativity. Encourage creative thinking at all levels and scales. Brainstorm improvement ideas with your crew, even when things seem to work fine, and listen to their ideas. Something as simple as realigning machines on a shop floor may generate substantial savings and simplify your workflow.
Watch Your Spelling!
Any organization that fails to practice continuous improvement sabotages itself in the long run. So keep your eyes open and keep stretching your boundaries. Always mind your P’s and Q’s as you move forward, never forgetting to dot those I’s and cross those T’s, and juggle your vowels along the way.