“Without continual growth and progress, such words as Improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.”
Long ago in the town of Opshitz in the Carpathian Mountains there lived two great woodcutters: Boris and Andre. One day they decided to settle the debate of who was the greater woodcutter. They hired a referee to ensure they would have a fair contest. The referee positioned them in different parts of the forest. They were close enough to hear each other but couldn’t see the others results. As the contest began both worked feverishly. After about an hour Boris realized he hadn’t heard anything for 10 minutes straight. He figured Andre was resting so he redoubled his effort. This pattern continued every hour- Boris heard Andre taking a break and he doubled his efforts. Finally after 6 hours when the referee called the contest over. Boris was proud of his results. He realized that he cut down more trees than he expected. The referee counted both cutters results and declared Andre the winner. Boris was beside himself and confronted Andre “How could you have won? I heard you taking breaks and I worked twice as hard then.”
Andre responded “I wasn’t taking a break. I was sharpening my ax.”
In my early days of my career we had just installed a new system and there was much to be done to support it. One challenge was tracking the programs and configurations changes we were making on almost a daily basis. We needed to ensure we moved all the appropriate changes into production when it was ready. This seemingly minor housekeeping task was very important because without it the full work that my team would do wouldn’t go into the production causing issues to end users. Another chore to track was the list of over 300 items that the team needed to enhanced but there wasn’t a consistent tracking mechanism. With so much going on there wasn’t time to address these items and everything else going on. People always say there’s always more to do then there is time and resources available. Enter Incremental Improvement.
Incremental improvement is where you take small deliberate steps to improvement. With time all these small steps lead to huge change. On a corporate level it’s sometimes called “Incremental innovation” or Kaizen. On a product level it’s called “Minimal viable product”. In a development environment it’s called “Agile”. On a personal level it’s been called Person Kaizen or CANI (by Tony Robbins). As you see this process has many names and helps in various facets of organizations and personal life, but to me it’s more a mindset and I’ll take you through the four steps to get it implemented. No matter what you call it, it’s about starting small and constantly improving.
Gmail is a great example of incremental improvement. When Google launched its email application the market seemed mature. Further, email users don’t like to change their addresses as it’s disruptive. Hotmail & Yahoo were the dominant players with their robust web based technology. Gmail, by contrast, launched with a limited feature set but it did have a few innovative features like conversations that set it apart. Because of its limited features it was considered in “beta” for a long time. Early adopters accepted the limitations and enjoyed the extra functionality. With time Google improved Gmail and added more features until it became the dominant email solution. Google has continually used this philosophy across their new product launches.
There are many advantages of incremental improvement including:
- Minimal investment- being that the changes are minimal it doesn’t take a lot of resources to get them implemented.
- Quick results- with minimal scope the results appear quickly.
- Changes can be impactful- using the pareto principle (aka the 80/20 rule) most of the easy gains can require minimal effort.
- Targeted- This philosophy offers the ability to correct course early and learn from early results. Instead of implementing a full featured product that may fail when users see issues early on it can be corrected or the entire initiative can be closed.
- Buy in- With the players involved in their own processes it improves the success of the roll out and shows results there’s more buy in and ownership accepted.
Steps for Constant Improvement
Edwards Deming, who many credit as the inspiration for the Japanese post-war economic miracle invented the Deming cycle as a quick way to simplify the process: Plan, Do, Check, Act. In short, think about(Plan) what you want to do, Do it, confirm what you’re doing is good (Check) and finally implement it (Act). For those with a system background this is just a compressed System Development Life Cycle (SDLC): Plan/Design, Develop, QA & Implementation.
Identify the vision of what your project will become. You shouldn’t spend much time here as the vision can evolve but it’s important to know where you’re eventually going. It can also serve as inspiration. Jotting down a few notes may be helpful and it can be revised with each iteration. What’s key is identifying what specific function you’ll implement in this round and ensure it’s deliverable.
Here’s some guidelines for ensuring success:
- Improvements should be small. Reminder: future iterations can include more improvements.
- Improvements should come from the people with a direct stake in the process
- Ensure the proper people are aboard on this iteration so they don’t delay it.
- Changes should be tested and put into use quickly.
- Be sure you have enough time to finish what you start
In this step you make the changes you identified. Having people involved in the process doing the change is helpful.
Further you should think about how to make the change generically so you don’t need to come back constantly to make new changes. Give users the ability to tweak the solution on an ongoing basis so it can grow with minimal resource input.
There’s no point in trying to improve a process if it isn’t showing the results you want or it introduces new issues. Always check your work. Ideally the person doing the work shouldn’t be doing the checking. Remember all those college papers you worked on all night to make it perfect only to get the response back from the teacher pointing out simple grammatical and structural mistakes. You didn’t see it as you were too involved in the process.
All your work doesn’t count unless you ship a product or implement the process. Ensure others are ready for it by communicating, doing training etc. Take steps necessary to ensure the change is integrated into the routine.
After completing the 4 steps, you start again. Sometimes you won’t have time to improve the specific process you completed. That’s ok, pick the one that gives you the biggest return. The goal is overall improvement and not just for a specific process. For processes that are done on periodic basis (e.g. a monthly report) you don’t need to improve it until the next run- at that point pick what you will improve and start the process.
Incremental improvement has many advantages but there’s some potential potholes along the way.
Some people do fixes only and consider that constant improvement. If you’re always fixing then you have a problem- look at your underlying processes and fix the root cause. Fixes are reactionary, be proactive and get ahead of the curve.
Continual improvement can lead to radical improvement over time. Sometimes a philosophy of a small change followed by a small change in the future won’t give you the full effect you need. The key here is focus. If there’s an area that needs a lot of changes dedicate the resources to it.
Cost of improvement
Not all improvement are worthwhile. When starting an improvement determine the cost of it in terms of time and effort and compare that to what you’ll get after (i.e. ROI). If it’s low consider another improvement opportunity or break it into a smaller fix that may be worthwhile.
In my dilemma of tracking move items, the initial quick fix for issue of tracking move items to production was a form that developers would fill out. The quick fix for tracking open items was to put the enhancement requests in a spreadsheet with accountability columns and detail columns for notes. This solved the immediate need but wasn’t ideal. The move document was cumbersome and couldn’t take into account the conflicts between enhancements and the spreadsheet wasn’t easily updated and didn’t fully account for hand-offs and task requirements. I could continue to enhance these forms and spreadsheets but that wouldn’t be a long term answer as it wouldn’t be transparent and would become cumbersome.
Fortunately a newly hired business analyst on my team was interested in learning programming. When I talked about the vision of what I wanted to accomplished he grew interested. At first this rookie programmer created a simple web form to track moves to production. There was limited time for process improvement but we periodically identified small areas that would give us the greatest return on our efforts. With time we added tracking for enhancements and accountability. Later we added workflow and enabled others within the organization to request items and have full visibility into the process.
There was also tough decisions on what wouldn’t be included. There was no administrative access in the system for 6 years but in the meanwhile I slowly built up a set of stored procedures to do the job. Further, knowing that there were be limited time to do wholesale changes to the system we designed it to be expandable. This manifested itself in the way we tracked new fields- we set up a keyword system allowing an administrator to add new fields on an ad-hoc basis. Further, we knew we couldn’t account for every special workflow request so we integrated the ability to call an external stored procedure giving the system unlimited possibilities.
With time this side little project grew into an integrated platform that tracks issues and manages the daily tasks of a number of people within the organization. There have been over 75,000 tickets tracked so far. We make changes to it only every 2-3 years now but with the built in expandability it has continued to evolve. This system has received praise from external auditors and internal people who initially resisted it. The system, although not perfect, is getting better little by little and has become a verb within the company. Some define success as having your brand becomes a verb- you can Google it. By that definition, this effort was a success.