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Tough thoughts on continuous improvement

Recently, I stumbled upon a rule from a Japanese Lean manager: “Regard whatever you do now as the worst way of doing things!”/1/ Wow! That’s tough. Here at Teamworkblog, we’re big fans of Kaizen and continuous improvement, but that one really struck me. Let’s explore why thinking this way is vital for our success.

Keep the celebration short. There’s still work to do.

The rule’s goal is, of course, to provide endless fuel for critical investigation of every practice, thus keeping the improvement wheel spinning. The rule is radically future-oriented. We’re not concerned about the past, neither to punish us for our faults, nor praise our gains. It’s all about the potential that lies ahead. The rule doesn’t say there’s no room for cheering our achievements. It just says, “Keep the celebration short. There’s still work to do.” The Deming cycle—plan, do, check/study, act—never reaches the top of the hill.

The Deming Cycle

Our “Worst Way” rule sets a no tolerance policy for complacency, thus helping to establish a new attitude of critical engagement in each member of the team. To understand why this is so powerful, it’s worthwhile contrasting it with its opposite.  Imagine after having solved all first and second priority problems, we give ourselves a pat on the back and declare that lower priority problems can wait. Can we really tell ourselves that things are now “okay”?

To accept a problem as “okay”, we create a narrative around why things are “okay” so as to obscure the problem. Why do we do that? Neuroscience tell us that the brain cannot accept cognitive dissonance and perpetually seeks to resolve any and all contradictions. The brain is, however, lazy, because thinking costs calories that we might need later to run away from a tiger.  Thus, they brain doesn’t actually care whether it has truly settled the matter (with real facts and understanding) or merely constructed an explanation that seems to do so. /2/ Human beings are not so much rational as rationalizing.

We have suspended our critical faculties

When a group collectively accepts the “all’s okay” narrative, that narrative takes on a larger quality. It’s no longer just a single, wrong notion, but an accepted belief. Welcome to the land of naked emperors. In politics, we call such narratives ideologies. It’s dangerous for a company as well, because it means we have together suspended our critical faculties. As a consequence, the competition will happily eat us for breakfast in the marketplace./3/ From a eagle’s perspective, “all’s okay” never lasts long, because the market evolves as companies grow complacent and the competition surpasses them, with everything slowly improving. From a hedgehog’s perspective—on the ground, in a team, trying to find satisfaction in a job well done—it threatens our livelihood because the company loses ground, runs red numbers and takes drastic corrective measures, all the while stuck in the “all’s okay” narrative.

Fortunately, a open and trustful team culture mitigates this danger, as someone almost always plays the role of the little boy pointing to the emperor’s pink bottom. While we are tempted to blame such cynics with hurting team spirit through their criticism, such team members perform a vital function in warning the Pollyannas among us to temper our enthusiasm. We need these colleagues to question our mistaken beliefs and challenge our optimism./4/

Teams thus face a four-fold challenge:
  1. developing constructively critical thinking about all practices, 
  2. and among all members of the team, while 
  3. maintaining the trust and openness in which such thinking can flourish and 
  4. finding the motivating energy to keep pushing the improvement envelope. 
It’s the all-important feedback loop of any Kaizen culture. It’s not easy, because criticism means pointing to what is wrong with the current structures, and individuals may have stakes in or even derive pride from those structures. It takes strength of character to accept criticism or to admit we were wrong./5/ But, if we see learning, rather than being right, as the goal, criticism becomes a welcome gift. Furthermore, with a sense of collective responsibility for the result, we can earn our points for the improvements we have made, and even take a moment to celebrate.

But, other problems remain to be solved. Let’s get to work!


  • /1/ The quote appears Masaaki Imai, Gemba Kaizen: A Commonsense Approach to a Continuous Improvement Strategy, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2012), p. 205.
  • /2/ Danial Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2011). It is worth noting that “certainty” is an emotional state about the perceived facts that we hold in our heads.
  • /3/ We see why “alternative facts” is in the end a losing proposition in the marketplace of ideas.
  • /4/ It is an interesting phenomena that all teams tend to have at least one cynic.  If that member is removed, someone else will take on that role.  In short, the team’s members seem to sense that they need this counterbalancing role.
  • /5/ A customer recently delighted me in a meeting by introducing himself with “Hi, my name is Alex. I’ve got a lot of strong opinions, but I am not always right, so please tell me when I am not.”  That statement prevented us, as suppliers, from confounding deference to our customer with uncritical acceptance of perhaps unworkable ideas.


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