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The Continuous Improvement Death Spiral, and How to Get Out of It

Posted by Mark Graban

Aug 19, 2015 9:35:21 AM

When we ask customers and webinar attendees about their barriers to continuous improvement, the main thing we hear about is time. “We don’t have time to improve” or “We don’t have time to create a culture of continuous improvement” are the two most common complaints. Managers and leaders don’t have time. Staff don’t have time.

How can you get out of that hamster-wheel rat race? (Sorry for mixing my rodent metaphors.)

When we don’t make time for improvement, we get stuck in a cycle that looks like this:


In parlance of “system dynamics,” this would be called a “negative reinforcing loop.”

When we don’t have time for improvement, the performance of our system stagnates or, more likely, gets worse.

That means we do MORE firefighting and things take longer, meaning we have LESS time for improvement. The cycle continues and spirals worse and worse, feeding upon itself and creating what some would call a “death spiral.”

Grim, eh?

The good news is that the inverse of that cycle is a “positive reinforcing loop."


If you make time for improvement, you improve your operations. You reduce waste and free up time that can then be reinvested in more improvement.

It’s a virtuous cycle. And, you have the additional benefit of employees being happier in the process, which makes them want to do more improvement.

So, it’s easy to see that the positive loop is better than the negative loop?

The question is how do you kick off that loop?

You need to take SPECIFIC actions to create time to get the ball rolling.

These actions, as taken by other organizations could include:

  • Temporarily scheduling overtime for volunteers to work on improvement
  • Using time in existing staff meetings
  • Using time in team huddles
  • Choosing to let people work on improvement instead of sending them home early when there’s no “regular work” to do

When we start the virtuous cycle going, improvement gets easier. Instead of making time for improvement, people can get better at taking advantage of time that presents itself during the day or week or year.

You can’t just expect that the negative cycle will somehow fix itself. It takes leadership.

And, we can help with our “KaiNexus Kickoff” workshop, as I facilitate for KaiNexus customers. Or, watch our recent webinar for more tips on how to make time for continuous improvement.

Making Time for Continuous Improvement

Watch Now



Topics: Improvement Culture

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