Seven Sayings for Successful Continuous Improvement

Getting started with continuous improvement is easy but keeping it going is hard. Even though we speak of long-term thinking as one of the central tenets of continuous improvement and kaizen, many of us opt for the short-term actions, focusing more on “improvement” than the “continuous”. It was probably a wise old farmer reflecting back on a life of toil in the soil who said:

If you want to prosper for a year, grow rice. If you want to prosper for a decade, plant trees. If you want to prosper for a century, grow people.

Continuous improvement is powered by people, their ideas and the drive to make things better. If we look back on our lives, we all started out with the purest motives for improvement: curiosity as children. We are inherently curious and creative as children. Yet gradually we lose these powers as we are taught to fit within society, gain responsibilities and “mature” into adults. Thankfully it is never too late to change our incredibly adaptive and plastic minds. Within organizations, we need to deliberately make a safe place for creativity and curiosity.

The one who says “it cannot be done” should not interrupt the one doing it.

Do you consider yourself creative? Do you have insufficient opportunities to express your creativity at work? Does your employer value creativity and innovation? Does your employer lack effective processes to enable innovation? In too many workplaces today the surprising answer to all of these questions is often “yes”. However, many employers and leaders struggle or even fail to make the connection between the need of the organization to be innovative, efficient, and delivering a profit to the shareholders with the ability of people to be creative. One of the great things about lean, kaizen as systems of continuous improvement is that they teach people how to look at their work, identify waste, and creatively redesign processes and systems that leave out this waste. Many times this is simply a matter of being prepared, organized and doing today’s work today. Perhaps this English saying is familiar?

A stitch in time saves nine.

Saves nine what, you may ask. Stitches, presumably. The meaning of this expression is that timely action saves you from much extra work later. Searching, redoing, rearranging are all part of the “nine” or added work and rework that we do when the process is not intelligent. But where to find the blueprint for such intelligent processes, or ways of redesigning our work methods? Wise words from the East tell us:

To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.

As the Japanese did 60 years ago when they sought out the ingenuity and best practices from American industry and its wise men like Dr. Deming, so again today we should seek best practices far and wide. Shamelessly sharing successes and failures equally helps us all continuously improve. Whenever we are confronted with a new challenge, we should first look to tried and true solutions. We all need to find a teacher – a sensei – someone who has gone down that road and is on their way back, willing to help. And when we humble ourselves to learn, we should not just nod our head and say, “Yes, I understand” and be too quick to act, but write down what we have learned so we can read back over it. A Chinese saying tells us:

The palest ink is better than the strongest memory

Toyota vice president and architect of TPS Taiichi Ohno taught us that continuous improvement must begin and end with a standard, and that these standards must be written down. One of the protests against documentation within the continuous improvement process is that this slows down the pace of change, even the pace of learning. Better to work on more improvements than to create detailed documentation to show what we did, goes the argument. Another old saying from China tells us:

Do not be afraid of growing slowly, only of standing still.

In light of the current stagnant economies which are in part a result from rapid growth fueled by artificial demand, speculation and bubble markets, these words seem particularly wise. If we grow or attempt to improve so fast that we fall and break our leg, we will not even be standing, just still. The last of the seven sayings for successful continuous improvement comes from Japan and reminds us that it is important not only that we come back from the current adversity but that we are prepared to bounce back from the next one:

Fall down seven times, get up eight.

The unrelenting persistence to try one more time after any failure separates the unsuccessful continuous improvement efforts from the successful ones. Continuous improvement only fails when you stop trying.

So I guess we need an eighth saying… Let’s hear from you. What quotes, proverbs, scriptures or sayings from your part of the world give you courage and inspire you to keep continuous improvement going?

16 Comments

  1. Rick Foreman

    January 27, 2010 - 5:39 am

    Jon; This might be one of the best posts I have read in a long time. We often talk in our journey of baby steps being okay, as long as baby steps are being taken. Standing still is not an option. One of my favorites is “those that say they can and those that say they can’t are both right.” Let’s change our way of thinking to “we can.” I also realize that to whom much is given much is required and in our continuous improvement journey, we’ve been empowered and given all the resources necessary to keep making those baby steps. It is not how fast we get there so much as what we learn and capture along the way. Great post.

  2. kathleen

    January 27, 2010 - 5:24 pm

    An inspired entry Jon. Inspiring too.
    Maybe my personal motto could be a saying. It’s “Slavery or Bravery. Pick one.” Sometimes it’s hard to move forward if you’re suspended between temerity (or even terror) and tedium. This would fall before “if you want to prosper”. It means own the decision. Take responsibility for acting or NOT acting. It’s a choice. Sometimes you have to choose slavery due to conditions but *say* you’re choosing slavery. Make yourself recognize it. After awhile, it will rankle and you’ll be ready to choose bravery instead.

  3. Jon Miller

    January 27, 2010 - 6:08 pm

    Hi Kathleen
    It’s good to hear from you again. Thanks for sharing your personal motto. It resonates.

  4. Mark R Hamel

    January 27, 2010 - 6:22 pm

    Jon,
    This is an excellent and very thoughtful post. One Scripture quote that comes to mind is from Sirach 15:17, “Before man are life and death, whichever he chooses shall be granted him.” While the metaphysical meaning is obvious, it does reinforce that we are, at least as lean leaders, empowered to make choices and that these choices have implications. Our choices, great or small either further the lean transformation and the development of our people or they do not. Do I really practice line stop jidoka or do I ignore the quality problem and just run the line? Do I tell the associates what the countermeasure has to be or do I facilitate their exploration of the root cause, formulation and implementation of the countermeasure and the following check and necessary adjustments? Do I let it slide when someone is not adhering to standard work? Etc., etc.
    Each choice presents us with an opportunity. And the most important are not necessarily about lean tools and systems, but about the principles (respect for the individual, humility, flow, pull, etc.).

  5. Robert

    January 28, 2010 - 12:12 am

    “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.'” /Martin Luther King, Jr/
    and this:
    “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” /Ralph Waldo Emerson/

  6. Dianne O'Konski

    January 28, 2010 - 6:45 am

    One of the sayings I have on my desk is “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” How many times have we tried to improve something because we think we know the answer, only to have the solution be less than optimal. The power of Lean is the team-based process in which everyone’s input and efforts are valued.

  7. Matt May

    January 28, 2010 - 8:39 am

    Great post, loved it! And since eight is a good luck number in Japanese culture, adding another is good! How about the good old “Haste makes waste.” One lesson that was driven home to me re TPS was that the fastest speed is not always the optimal one. Has that lesson been lost on the pre-production side of the house? One could probably argue that some of the hits Toyota is taking right now might have to do with the pressures in design and engineering to avoid the harsh market penalties levied for not releasing a product on schedule. I’d wager that if you looked at the product development cycle span over time it has compressed dramatically. Computer graphics have helped do that, but the disappearance of numerous prototypes via old school methods might just be behind some of these ever-so-public and all-too-tarnishing design snafus. I could be wrong…thinking out loud more than anything.

  8. Ron Pereira

    January 28, 2010 - 8:56 am

    “I [Jesus] have come so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).

  9. Fred Krebs

    February 1, 2010 - 5:03 am

    Excellent post. Here is my suggestion: “It’s surprising what you can accomplish when no one’s concerned about who gets the credit!” Ronald Reagan. Given that most of us work in organizations and with groups of people this concept resonates with me.

  10. Steve Halpin

    February 2, 2010 - 6:34 am

    hi jon,
    A great post. My contribution:
    “Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says, ‘Make me feel important.’ Not only will you succeed in sales, you will succeed in life.”
    — Mary Kay Ash 1918-2001, Founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics
    Companies are just groups of people competing against each other. like places, a company is defined by its people. It doesn’t take long to pick up on the atmosphere within a business. The job of management and lean is to help people realise their potential within the business.

  11. Renaud-Mallet Mireille

    February 3, 2010 - 5:04 am

    I just discovered this blog and really, I love it. My contribution is a quote I discovered some 25 years ago on a tea tag from Celestial Seasonings’ which I still have. Using that modest tea bag, Jefferson was personally giving me a great rule by which to move on in life:
    “I’m a great believer in luck, the harder I work, the more I have of it.”
    How this ties up with continuous improvement is in the way you can stumble on chance findings and encounters, and instead of just letting them pass by as just a random and meaningless minor or major event, take advantage of them to improve your insight of things and systems or relationships to people.

  12. Edson Paiva

    February 12, 2010 - 12:45 pm

    O Processo de Melhoria Contínua depende muito da disciplina da liderança e da presença a onde as coizas acontecen (Na produção)e sim concordo que agrande diferença esta nas pessoas

  13. Hasmar

    February 16, 2010 - 6:18 am

    I am a Production Innovation Advisor for my department.
    Really enjoying reading all your articles.

  14. Kelley B

    February 16, 2010 - 10:04 am

    “Don’t let best get in the way of better”. I’ve been on kaizen teams where people are too focused on the ultimate solution which would take much more than a week to be functioning. Often times we have to consciously remind ourselves and others that true kaizen is doing something better today than yesterday, and doing even better tomorrow, and so on and so on…………

  15. keni

    March 21, 2010 - 4:43 am

    hi jon,
    interesting ideas. ive just read ‘catch me if you can’, the book from which the movie was made. and it occurred to me that if a crook like william abignale could pull off the stunts he did before the age of twenty; that is to say, impersonate a co-pilot for PAN AM, make millions with fake cheques, travel all over the planet, sleep with numerous flight attendants (in those days called ‘stewardesses’), teach sociology at university for one summer on a fake phd certificate, fake being a paediatrician for a year and a half, and work as an assistant attorney general for a few months after passing the bar in three months…
    then its just a question of turning the ‘on’ button in the brain, rather than keep it on ‘off’ as most people seem to. if one is basically honest, unlike abignale, what couldnt one do by switching on ‘on’!

  16. Matt Parowski

    March 18, 2011 - 9:58 am

    This is a great post. I love investigating the wisdom of proverbs, which are too-often ignored in an advertising-driven world of constant demand for the new and novel.
    A quote I’ve found *very* helpful (though I don’t know who first quipped it): “‘I don’t have time for [fill-in-the-blank]’ is a statement of priorities, not a statement of fact.” People make excuses for not going after good things, but the reality is that if you want to do something, you’ll see to it that it gets done.