How Do You Sustain Improvement?

“How do you sustain improvement?” This is one of the most common questions posed to us about kaizen and Lean. I used to think this question required a thoughtful pause and a serious three-part reply. But lately I ask “How do you not sustain it?”
Whether you have an inventory problem or a lead time problem or a quality problem, kaizen and Six Sigma can make a big change quickly. Change happens to things quicker than it happens to people. But we’re interested in changing people since people change things, and without people what use are things anyway? And how did that inventory problem get there in the first place?
The lure of rapid results and quick solutions to problems is what draws most people to Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma, kaizen and variations on these. Maybe these improvement efforts need to be slowed down just a bit and spread around a lot more. Getting an idea into peoples’ heads and keeping it there is far more important than following some step by step improvement program.
If you had to choose would you rather have persistent or rapid change? Sadly, many people who are in a position to answer this question and to influence the direction and speed of change efforts are more concerned with what happens during the next 90 days rather than the next 900 days.
Leaders may give lip service to “continuous improvement” yet the reality is that they want it fast. With enough wisdom, time and resources you can certainly have both rapid and persistent change. A leader can always gain more wisdom and resources, but not more time. So how should leaders spend their time in order to have persistent change?
Persistent change requires leaders to take more interest in what is happening today on the gemba than in what reports or dashboards say happened yesterday. Persistent change requires asking people “What needs to change?” and “Why?” and really listening. Persistent change requires teaching as many people (your organization, customers and suppliers) as possible to do the same thing.
Anyone who has ever tried to keep a pet turtle alive knows that you don’t just put it in bowl in a closet in a another city and then ask, “How do I keep it alive?” Yet this is how many leaders “support” their Lean efforts. How do you sustain improvement? You go to gemba. You water and feed it. You give it sunlight. It is your work. You sustain it. Personally. Persistently. Seriously.
How do you sustain improvement? You bought the turtle. How do you not sustain it?

1 Comment

  1. Lee Fried

    March 6, 2007 - 12:55 pm

    Hi Jon,
    I love this post! Sustaining improvement is our greatest challenge as we move forward in our Lean transformation. Mainly, because it challenges the role of management at all levels. Sustainability is an outcome or responsibility. When people feel responsible for work they are vested in sustaining and improving it. When managers feel their job is to meet with other managers and review rear looking reports your improvements will be at risk.
    You hit the nail on the head when you call on leaders to go the gemba. Not only will it send a clear message to associates that sustaining improvement is important, and their responsibility, it will also change what the leader views as important.
    Thanks for the message,
    Lee