Five Thoreau Quotes to Reflect on Continuous Improvement

By Jon Miller Updated on October 9th, 2016

Henry David Thoreau: Wikepedia

Nineteenth century American poet, agitator for social change and champion of simple living Henry David Thoreau had a lot to say about continuous improvement. Here are five quotes that will help us reflect on how we improve.

“Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after.” At first this may seem puzzling. Fishing is by definition, catching fish. But unless we are commercial fishermen, we fish not mainly for piscine reasons. We fish for the pleasure of being outdoors, the joy or being with friends or family, and for the challenge of the sport. The catch may be incidental. In “commercial” continuous improvement the result is certainly important. But the positive human interaction in the process of making the improvement is what makes it sustainable.

“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” Unfortunately most problem solving in the world is just a zero-sum movement of resources from A to B and back to A again. That is to say, most so-called problem solving efforts are not it. Problems can be contained by immediate, superficial actions, by the hacking of evil branches. But unless we find and address the roots of the problem the tree not only stands but can spread. We need to check that we are not one of the “thousand hacking” at branches. When tempted to jump to solutions fully without grasping the problem clearly and digging up the root causes, remember Thoreau’s words and choose to be the exception one-in-a-thousand.

“While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. It has created palaces, but it was not so easy to create noblemen and kings.” This quote speaks to the fact that improving processes, procedures, systems and things is not enough. The people who work and live within these systems must grow, change and improve with them. The first and second generation of imitation lean and continuous improvement failed because the people systems did not match the advanced physical and technical systems. Increasingly it is understood that lean is about making palaces out of our houses and our people into kings and queens.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” Continuous improvement values multiple, small step improvements over a few large step improvements for this reason. The ultimate goal is to make continuous improvement part of the culture. This requires changing habits and mindsets. This begins by agreeing on how we want to think and be, finding the smallest daily increments, and repeating them.

And my favorite… “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.”

  1. François

    November 10, 2016 - 8:13 am

    Bravo John. Good analogies and connections 🙂

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