Imagine that on New Year’s Day, Average Joe decides he needs to get healthier. All he needs to do is: quit smoking, stop drinking, run 3 miles a day, stick to a diet of vegetables and lean protein, drink more water, get a checkup, meditate, and floss. Does Joe jump right in? No. He sighs, grabs a beer, and turns on the TV. It’s just too much. Maybe next year.
Joe’s right. It is too much. The problem of Joe’s “health” is too overwhelming to tackle. If he tried, he’d likely fail. Many companies approach improvement in the same way. They decide to “become Lean” or “achieve 100% efficiency.” Then they see this huge list of intertwined, flawed processes that they either try to tackle all at once and fail, or simply decide to keep putting Band-Aids on the status quo (at least for now … which becomes forever).
The issue for both Joe and these organizations is the framing of the problem. What would happen if instead of trying to become healthy or efficient, they took an incremental approach to improvement? If the goal is simply to identify one problem area and fix it, suddenly the problem that looked like a mountain too big to climb starts to shrink.
The process of incremental improvement is fairly straightforward:
Identify Opportunities for Improvement: Joe’s got a head start on this one. For companies, this means involving employees in identifying and documenting ideas, no matter how simple or small, that would result in better outcomes. Ideally, an improvement management system is in place to serve as the repository for employee ideas.
Document the Current State: For Joe, this might be his check-up. In a company, defining standard work is a good place to start. Once you’ve outlined the current best practice for every task, you have a baseline for improvement.
Begin the Improvement Cycle: The PDSA (Plan, Do, Study, Act) cycle is ideal for incremental improvements. Once again, technology can assist with notifications and alerts to ensure smooth workflow. Joe might begin by taking 10,000 steps a day and eating three servings of veggies.
Measure Results: It is important for companies and people alike to see the tangible results of the improvement work they do. When employees who contribute ideas see how they’ve positively impacted the business, they contribute more ideas and more actively engage in improvement work. When Joe starts to lose weight and sees his blood pressure come down, he’ll be ready to add another small change.
Repeat: The work of incremental improvement is never finished. The idea is to make small improvements again and again as you move ever closer to your ultimate goal.
Average Joe doesn’t want to be average. He wants to be awesome. He won’t get there overnight, but he can get there if he strings together a series of small victories. That’s how your organization will become awesome as well.