Many people think that the mindset for continuous improvement is common, easy to learn, or that they possess it. This does not reflect the true situation. The improvement mindset is rare.

disaster1In my profession, teaching, I see the result of my work during and after every class. There is always – always! – a gap between what happened and what I had hoped would happen. The gap is usually unfavorable, but not always. Sometime things go much better than I expect, but for reasons that I did not understand at the time. Gaps in either direction trouble me, and they should trouble you as well.

Years of teaching and prior experiences in industry and elsewhere taught me long ago to think of my work in this way: “Everything is a disaster.” If you think this way, deeply, in your heart and mind, then you will be motivated to understand problems and make improvements every day. Conversely, if you think “Everything is great,” then you will not improve or improve things only once in a while – a pace that is too slow to keep up with the competition.

How many people – top leaders, middle managers, or workers – are willing to say or admit that “Everything is a disaster” with respect to their work, their department, or their company? Very few, that’s for sure. When asked how things are going, managers are more likely to say “Everything is great.” They say that because it regarded as the sign of a good manager. And, the metrics look good, so they are lulled into a false sense that all is well. My teaching metrics are great, but still, I think my teaching is a disaster.

Toshihiro Nagamatsu, a team leader at Shingijutsu USA, tells people: “We are always at our worst.” What does he mean by that? At any point in time, your company and your work are in bad shape, and you must acknowledge this because others are competing against you and will take your business if you do not recognize problems and make improvements every day.

Nagamatsu-san explains it this way:

“You may think you are a good company today, but make no mistake you are not. You may become better tomorrow, but still you are toward the back. At any moment, somewhere in this world there is someone doing the same work better.  There is no end. You must continually seek to improve.”

So, until you learn to recognize the gap that always – always! – exists between what happened and what you expected to happen – that “Everything is a disaster,” or “We are always at our worst” – you do not yet possess the mindset for continuous improvement. And this, in turn, affects your ability to respect people.

So think of happy talk – “Everything is great” – as an abnormal condition, while disaster is the normal condition. At best, happy talk leads to periodic improvement (but likely not significant improvement), while disaster promotes meaningful daily improvement.

This extends even to the leaders of the Lean community, who until only recently largely ignored the gap between what they expected to happen and what has actually happened. To them, everything is not a disaster. And, there remain critically important aspects of of Lean management that are entirely ignored. This will not get any attention until they adopt the mindset that “Everything is a disaster.”

2 Responses to The Improvement Mindset Is Rare

  1. William Ryan says:

    Thanks Bob for the many great Lean insights again.

    Long ago for many years the Big 3 auto companies got fat and lazy. Market recessions come and go and often force people to change their ways or there could be dire consequences of plant closures and job loss. Many had to learn to become thrifty or fail. This learning process that never really stops called the Lean Journey that all must learn to become faster, cheaper and better to survive and have a job. When sales go way down, temporary lay offs would begin and these were the warning signs of the “reality gap” that gave the wake up call to many that Lean cannot ever be ignored and is critically important to the over all success of the business.

    Once you get all associates on board with True Lean Thinking many good things can come about at a much faster rate of improvement that get reflected back into greater profit share improvements for all…We had many, many team meeting with the significance of this theme being driven home. In the real world of big business there really is no time or money to be wasted so pressures for compliance to succeed was often great.

  2. Carl Klemm says:

    The most important aspect of leadership for kaizen generation is for everyone to recognize the gap to the ideal condition and have some kind of road map to get there. This means the ideal must be clear and the current situation grasped correctly. Kaizen is a natural habit of humans, they do it every day. The ability of an organization to standardize the improvements, so that the whole organization benefits and not just the individual, is where difficulties are found. Motivation means to ‘make move’. Both positive and negative feedback are appropriate methods, depending upon the circumstances. “We are now the worst we will ever be” implies more about the spirit of continuous improvement than it does that ‘now’ is a disaster perhaps?

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