Incremental Improvement Works.
“Everything takes time. Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”
― David Foster Wallace
There are many articles discussing how to make time for improvement, and The Lean Blog does a great job summarizing some responses to that dilemma. The various opinions discuss prioritizing, making time, getting people involved, and so on. And this article, Are you too busy to improve?, talks about focusing on ‘the system’, quoting Deming “A bad system will beat a good person every time."
All of these are very valid approaches, but when considering how to "make time," it’s advantageous to think about incremental improvement as well – a deliberate approach of gradual and constant small improvements.
Breaking Big Tasks into Achievable Steps
Often, taking the time for improvement seems like a big project, overwhelming and difficult. Most of us deal with this daily in both our business and personal lives… putting it off until tomorrow seems much easier than dealing with it now. Instead of procrastinating, we need to remind ourselves that by breaking down large tasks into smaller, manageable subtasks, it becomes much easier for us to stay focused and tackle them, keeping the momentum going.
How Big is Too Big for a Task?
I keep an opportunity improvement list for my team that I update weekly. There always seems to be that one item that gets carried over to the next week, the next month. It’s easy to do the little projects first while I avoid addressing the big projects.
For example, my brain processes “Improve data quality” as a monumental task. But by breaking it down to simple tasks, it becomes less daunting. Tasks like:
- Import the data from an external data source.
- Create a backup copy of the original data in a separate workbook.
- Ensure that the data is in a tabular format of rows and columns.
- Do tasks that don't require column manipulation first.
- Do tasks that do require column manipulation.
For larger projects, breaking them down allows us to systematically get the project completed successfully. Although we don’t get big breakthrough improvement all at once, we are seeing ongoing, cumulative results over time.
Incremental Improvement or Huge Leaps?
Malcolm Gladwell is a advocated of change occurring through smaller, incremental improvements. In a recent interview with Forbes, he reminded us that in the ‘60s, car makers were ‘nudged’ in the direction of safety. First, “You’ve got to equip all cars with seatbelts.” Then, “In the ‘70s, we started setting standards for fuel economy.” Finally, “The automobile industry took those (nudges) and used them to create airbags and develop hybrids.” Safety innovations will continue to be essential in the automobile industry, and will likely persist as incremental changes vs. sweeping changes.
Small Improvements are Powerful
Improvement doesn’t have to come with sweeping changes. Although the results may not produce dramatic effects immediately, they will be long lasting. And, the accumulation of numerous small improvements is often as powerful, or even more powerful, than huge leaps.