The Three “I” of Continuous Improvement

Gemba Acafreakonomicsdemy recently launched a health & wellness program for its employees. I am very excited as this will force us to keep investigating what it takes to engage, improve and sustain positive change. We hope to give you updates and celebrate the progress of our team members on their personal continuous improvement journeys.

Health & wellness has several parts. At the most basic level, there is physical health, what foods we consume, how we exercise and how we rest. In the past my career didn’t always allow me to sleep properly. My eating habits are good but could always be better. Fortunately, I’ve always enjoyed physical exercise, whether it is sports, taking a walk or chopping and stacking firewood. But this is not the case for most Americans. The podcast reveals that 80% of Americans are not getting the 30 min per day of some form of exercise. Yes, unless you enjoy it, those 30 minutes of exercise per day can really be a chore. Helping people to find motivation to exercise is a key to any health & wellness program. This reminded me of a Freakonomics Radio podcast from a couple of years ago that attempts to answer the question of What’s the most efficient form of exercise?

In lean management, we aim to build systems that allow us to do the most good with the least amount of time, energy and resources. Lean asks, “What is our purpose?” and then asks, “How can we arrive at it most efficiently?” and then proceeds to, “Why didn’t that work as planned?” and “What are we going to do about it?” Just as continuous improvement managers are constantly studying and finding better ways to run a business, fitness experts are finding safer and more effective ways to exercise. Exercise machines have improved. Muscle-building supplements have improved. New and more time-efficient exercise routines are invented. We know that getting the problem statement correct makes all of the difference in whether or not we can ever countermeasures to address root causes, and the podcast points out that “what is the most efficient form of exercise?” is the wrong question.

Simply put, the best exercise is… whichever one you’ll actually do! This reminds me of a question that I get a lot when coaching, “What does good standard work for a leader look like?” I can show examples from other leaders but this is mostly unhelpful. The best leader standard work is whatever one you’ll actually do. It is whatever periodically recurring series of checks-and-coach routines that you will actually and reliably perform. Most days, you will fail at performing it, but the only real failure is to abandon it altogether. The same is broadly true of continuous improvement.

The podcast sums up the wisdom of various doctors and physical health experts interviewed as a three-point checklist, or “The Three I”. They are Intensity, Individualization, and “I Like to Do It.” In brief, short and intense exercise is as good if not better than longer, low-intensity exercise. Chop and stack wood for 30 min rather than jog for 60? Hurrah! Individualization means that we are all physically different people, and what works for me might not work for you, so tinker with it and find what does. The “I like to do it” is simply finding an activity that you enjoy which also burns calories, be it fishing, playing the drums or reorganizing your rock collection. People are more likely to exercise when the 3 I are in effect.

We can say the same thing for continuous improvement journeys. We tend to make more progress by including “intense” improvements into our calendar, whether it be full-blown kaizen events, development scrums or an all-hands one-hour 5S activity. Individualization and adaptation of the lean principles to fit our organization is essential, as what worked there doesn’t always work here. And if lean is neither fun nor personally beneficial people are less apt to like to do it for very long. What this all suggests is that how our organizations make and sustain positive change is very similar to how we do this for our bodies. If we can do one, we can do the other.

1 Comment

  1. Meghna

    August 4, 2016 - 6:31 am

    True words, as we take care of our body similarly, we need to take care our profession also. Routine check-up and identification of problems and finding solutions are the basic needs of any business. Six Sigma helps in treating illness of business and making the organization the healthy one. Source “SixSigmaCentral”