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Eulogy of a Continuous Improvement Program

When you were born, everyone could see the twinkle in your eyes for the fire and passion you held.  As you grew, you became inspired by the reported accomplishments of others; and consumed with great enthusiasm and dedication every bit of knowledge that was at your disposal.  You had the good fortune of being influenced by mentors along the way who helped you to know their espoused path to the Corporate Valhalla as they understood it.  Driven by this youthful exuberance, you believed you could make a positive and indelible mark on the world.

You started applying what you knew to pursuing your purpose in life; to improve company performance by delighting customers and improving the circumstances of those who worked at the companies dedicated to such.  When you matured from being a disjointed series of projects to being a program, there was great fanfare and much self-congratulations as you worked on one project after another in pursuit of these goals – driving benefits every step of the way.

But in early 2020, you started to not feel like your usual self, growing increasingly anxious as you became progressively ill.  People started treating you differently than you had become accustom.  And by the middle of 2020, bereft of life, you had shed your mortal coil and passed onward into that good night.

But it was not COVID that killed you. 

No, the root-cause of your death was an unmistakable void, even misguidance, in the knowledge you gained as you matured and grew and the purpose that you had.  And that is why you died.

The following might sound a little harsh…

… But maybe “stark” is a better word?  Clear and concise, perhaps? 

Some of you will read this, still having your position as Director of Continuous Improvement or a Continuous Improvement professional, and think the following is all nonsense – perhaps even take offense.  Since you have not been affected (yet), then this article does not (probably) pertain to you.  But perhaps you will gain from understanding what the tell-tails of a program in distress might be and, having this knowledge, avoid the doom that might await.

Over the past few months, I have spoken to no less than forty former Directors (or similar titles) of Continuous Improvement lamenting how their programs were cut to the bone or eliminated outright (some called it Operational Excellence, but it wasn’t, and I will explain why a bit later).

They were reaching out to me seeking guidance on their next-generation self; career coaching, if you will.  One of the exercises I have them perform (not during the call, but afterwards), is to have them imagine themselves to be a Superhero, like; Superman, or Wonder Woman, or the Black Panther, and so on.  Each Superhero has a Superpower and I ask them to think about what their Superpower(s) might be.  Then I ask them to create a “Capabilities Statement” that speaks to what they can-do (future or ideal state) versus a resume which speaks to what they have-done (past state).

I also ask about the circumstances by which they had seen their programs slashed; eventually coming to their being unemployed.  Each and every one then shares with me all of the projects their programs had delivered, the trainings they had done, and the improvements and associated benefits their programs generated.  And certainly, the marks they made were both positive and indelible.

So why were their programs cut (killed) and they found themselves out of a job?

“Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
– Warren Buffet

Simply put and harsh as it might sound, they were not working on what was important to the company. 

(see “CEO’s and their Sausages – Learn to Love them Like They Do” for more on this subject)

They were tactical (perhaps even logistical) and not strategic.  And as such, they were a “nice to have”, not a “need to have”.  So when business circumstances became difficult and cost cuts had to be made, they found themselves out.

(see, “Operational Excellence Maturity Model” for more on this subject)

Certainly, most of the programs they ran (but not all of them) had a structure.  Many were just a series of disjointed improvement projects; fire-fighters reacting to one crisis after another.  Interestingly but not surprising, the primary KPI’s for such project-driven programs were how many projects are completed.  I usually consider this a tell-tail for a program in trouble (or soon to be).

Some of them had specific emphasis on a purpose that was set sometime in the past such as cost-cutting and quality (both popular and traditional purposes); also ranking high were reliability, health and safety. 

But were these the business factors that need the most attention today?  All programs are born on some point in the business cycle and take-on the DNA of the business factors at that point in time.  However, time moves on and the company’s position on the business cycle – and its vision, and strategy – also change.  Are the challenges faced by the business today the same as when the program was first conceived?  Has the emphasis of your program also changed so that it remains aligned to the needs of the company?  Take a moment to reflect on that.

Then I asked them to share with me the corporate vision (future state), where the company wanted to be in three- or five-years’ time; many could not tell me.  Of course, there were some (about a third) that did share with me their understanding of the corporate vision – mostly in the abstract and not specifically, such as “we will be the Nr.1 (fill in the blank) – and none were prioritizing their efforts in its support or pursuit.

There was one conversation in particular that stands out.  In discussing the purpose of their program, I asked what the corporate vision was and how the company was going to arrive to that future state.  The response was that the company was growing by acquisition.  My follow-up question was; “How much of your effort and how many projects were devoted to supporting the acquisition activities of the company, such as post-acquisition integration.”  The response, “None.”

Not working on what was important.  Not working on supporting the company vision or strategy.  Not working to compress time.  Now, just not working.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
– Peter Drucker

Advocates of Continuous Improvement, especially Lean, have this mistaken notion that the culture of Japan and Japanese companies is somehow superior to that of the West – and that Western companies should become more like the Japanese.  Besides this being largely and demonstrably false; to any extent it may work in Japan (such as Toyota) is solely because the Japanese companies are operating within their culture; in Japan.  The same goes for rock-star American companies, or British companies, or German companies, and so on.  That the culture works at these companies is not so much a product of one culture being “better” or “worse” than another, but rather those working at these companies have shared values – a shared culture.  This establishes an environment where alignment can be achieved easiest; and alignment is a fundamental necessity for success.

For instance, examine Toyota operations outside of Japan and you can see that the Japanese culture at these operations is diluted; Japanese-lite, as it were.  Toyota understands the weight of Drucker’s words and influences the corporate culture of their operations outside Japan, but does not force-feed it.

The fatal error some advocates of Lean make is that they believe Toyota is the “best” company in the world.  But by what measure?  Certainly, I can name a company in the world that is better than Toyota by any measure that might be put forth; market share (Google search engine), most profitable (Apple), employment (Walmart), most reputable (Rolex, then Lego), market capitalization (Amazon), best employer (Alphabet), and so on.  In fact, other than market share specifically within the automobile sector, Toyota rarely ranks on any of these other metrics at all – and even then exchanges top-spot with Volkswagen almost every quarter.

Perhaps Toyota is the best automobile manufacturer in the world (then again, maybe it’s Volkswagen).  But what means “best”?  Besides, none of the former Continuous Improvement Directors I spoke with worked for automobile manufactures.  Some worked in the automotive sector, but most were from outside the automotive sector (spanning across industries).  Yet they were still thinking as if they should model after Toyota (in some cases, GE or Honeywell with Six-Sigma); even though each industry, and every company within those industries, face different challenges, priorities, and timescales under which they operated. 

For instance, it might take two years to introduce a new model vehicle – but new software (with low-code/no-code) can be developed in days and to market in weeks.  There are no supply chains of note.  To purchase takes but a click.  And there is a constant stream of revisions being introduced.

Many of these former Continuous Improvement Directors made the fatal error of trying to force their understanding of the Japanese culture and the Toyota way as the only path to success for their company.  This is unfounded and simply not true.  

Only if you are Japanese can you truly understand the Japanese culture and what it means to be Japanese.  The same with Toyota; if you hadn’t worked there and become fully immersed over a period of time, you just don’t know the Toyota way.  It’s like me trying to explain to you what its like giving birth to a child – ridiculous, I know.

But most important, they were assuming that their company ambition was to be Toyota (or a Japanese company holding Japanese values), and this is a false (if not outright wrong) assumption.

Worse, they did not see the err of their ways and were deaf (or didn’t listen or didn’t ask) to how they can best serve the company instead of the company serving them – some almost holding the belief that they run the company and that those in senior leadership are a bunch of greedy and ignorant buffoons.

(see “The Fault Lies Not in the Stars, but Within Ourselves” for more on this subject)

Every country has its culture.  And every culture has its strengths and weaknesses.  Companies are created, instilled in the culture of their founders; which consists of the base culture into which they were born, further modified by the culture of their families and the experiences as they grew up.  The chances of this culture being abandoned for a new culture of Continuous Improvement is near nil. 

A better approach is to introduce the “why” of Continuous Improvement; appeal to the cerebral.  This means introducing Continuous Improvement in a manner that embraces the corporate culture and is positioned as an accelerant for the achievement of the corporate vision and what motivates it.  Try to remember, it’s not about you.

But do remember that the corporate vision is not static.  What was important when the Continuous Improvement program was launched has changed over time.  As such, you need to level-set periodically so that you are always working on what is important to the company. 

For instance, when COVID hit, what did you do?  Did you see the tectonic shift occurring and make it a priority to determine what changes had been made to the corporate strategy?  Did you set-up and have that meeting with the C-Suite to see what changes in vision or strategy might have been made?  When you were done, did you understand how existing what had changed and why?  Did you then create a plan to re-prioritize your efforts to support these new strategies?  Did you do it quickly? 

(see “The Antidote for VUCA is OODA” for more on this subject)

As an example of understanding what you don’t know can kill you (and your program), the importance of making sure you are always working on what’s important, and the advantage (and need) of speed and decisiveness;

On December 16th, 1944, the German military launched a surprise attack that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.  The German forces consisted of over 400,000 troops, 1,500 tanks, 2,600 pieces of artillery, over 1,000 combat aircraft, and a host of other weapons and support.
General George S Patton was fully engaged in an eastward winter campaign.  But he suspected that the Germans might attack and developed contingency plans to redirect his efforts just in case.  When is suspicions proved true, he executed on those plans; pivoting his efforts 90-degrees to north, leading his 3rd Army 100 miles in heavy winter weather with little rest, and engaging the German forces who had laid siege on the town of Bastogne (a strategic crossroads critical to the German plan) on December 26th, thus breaking-up the German offensive and sealing its fate.

I guarantee, if you are working on what’s important to the company and are strategically aligned and engaged, you will be supported; keeping in mind that you are not the only platform for success in the company and resources have to be allocated accordingly.  A little humility would do most Continuous Improvement professionals well.

No, at the end of the day, COVID didn’t kill your program or cause you to lose your job.  Living in a VUCA world, the company just had to focus on what was important and prioritize their efforts – and your program and you didn’t make the cut.  If you find yourself in similar circumstances (or suspect you might be soon), reflect on how you were/are positioned, what happened to put you in the “nice to have” category and not the “need to have”, and what you can do to always be the strategic asset you believe are.

The difference between Continuous Improvement and Operational Excellence;

I noted early in this article that, in my opinion, there is a distinct difference between Continuous Improvement and Operational Excellence and that I would share with you that difference.  But although there is this difference, it’s more a matter of maturity than actually being something separate and completely new – you cannot achieve Operational Excellence without first having a command of the fundamental building blocks of Continuous improvement.   So, to me;

  • Professionals in Continuous Improvement believe the enemy is the competition; those that provide similar products or services. And they orient their efforts to eliminating waste and improving quality with these efforts taking the form of a series of improvement projects; hopefully deliberate and oriented to the company vision and strategy and not just continuous.  These skills are the basics, the starting point, of a company on its way to becoming a high-performance organization; and you will not go further to becoming one without mastering these skills.  Unfortunately, a risk here is that the company doesn’t benefit as much as it should because the “riches” gained as you reduce the costs are too often given away by sales to the customer.

  • Whereas the professionals in Operational Excellence know that the real enemy is time. And to successfully engage this enemy, they apply their efforts on helping to get their organizations to work better as organizations; not just vertical optimizations (that are realized by having a basis in Continuous Improvement) but horizontal integrations (which will result in faster decision-making).  With time as their enemy, they know the competitive advantage will go to those companies that can see further beyond the horizon, recognize opportunities and threats sooner, and to devise and deploy decisive responses faster.

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