The Continuous Improvement Apple Tree

Apples are one of the most popular fruit. They are bright, sweet and the subject of children’s books, religious symbolism and business metaphors. Most people have an idea where apples come from. Grocery stores. They are readily available all-year-round thanks to cold storage warehouses.

Many of these warehouses are just a couple of hundred miles east of here. Washington State exports more than $700 million worth of apples per year. Within a thirty-minute walk of my home, I can find dozens of apple trees growing in parks, along rights-of-way or in parking lots. Friendly neighbors offer buckets of apples each fall, collected from their backyards. As in Lean, so with apples: each season most of the fruit rots unpicked on the ground. People can’t give enough of them away. They become food for crows, deer, insects.

The Continuous Improvement Apple Tree

There’s an apple tree visual often used to explain the relationship between various continuous improvement methods or tools and types of challenges. For whatever reason this image raises the ire of some continuous improvement practitioners. Perhaps they take issue with the image of Six Sigma being positioned at the top with Lean and/or kaizen at the bottom, implying sophistication or importance. Or it may simply be the objection to listing various tools and methods alongside each other, without reference to the people side. Despite these protests, the continuous improvement apple tree is not apt metaphor, easy to grasp, unless you’ve never picked apples.

Apples on the Ground, Gold Coins on the Gemba

I don’t know why more people around here don’t pick up apples off of the ground. Maybe they are too busy texting as their Tesla rolls on in self-driving mode. Yes, these apples may be bruised. We may have to cut out chunks where insects or birds pecked at it. But they are delicious, and free. Perhaps people are embarrassed to be seen picking damaged fruit from the ground. We are not hungry enough to overcome our pride, look down and pick some up. There are more attractive apples within reach on the tree.

If we are hungry enough for daily improvement, it’s there for the taking. Take a gemba walk. Notice trash, noise, difficult work, clutter, or unsafe conditions. Correct it. Come back tomorrow, there will be more. Lead by example. Soon others will see that it’s OK to pick apples off the ground, to keep things safe and tidy around their workspace, and join you. There are gold coins on the gemba, if we are willing to pick them up and clean them off.

Using the Right Improvement Tool for the Job

Sometimes it’s not worth the effort to collect the apples on the ground. We notice them too late. They’re half rotten. The effort to make profitable use of them is not worth the reward. If so, we can pick the low-hanging fruit from the tree using commonsense and effort.

Apple tree will have fruit just out of reach. When climbing high up a tree and out onto a limb, we run the risks of breaking branches and damaging the tree or even falling to injury. It’s not worth it.

There are better ways, appropriate tools for the task. A simple tool such as a fruit picking pole extends our reach. Using this tool, we can apples one or two at a time. This works well until we want the applies that are higher up or deeper in the tree, hard to access with a pole. If that’s too slow or if the tree is too tall, we can get a ladder.

Beyond Simple Tools and Commonsense

When the fruit is in the very top of the tree, ladders and picking poles can’t do the job or we have too many apples to pick in a short time, we need to go beyond simple tools and commonsense. There are apple picking machines that grip a tree, shake it, and collect the applies as they fall into a large tray.

Likewise, when solving problems, the more challenging ones may require designed factorial experiments to find the optimal conditions for a process. While we may be able to arrive at the same point through trail-and-error kaizens or using one factor-at-a-time experiments as espoused by Toyota Kata, these will take more time and effort than is warranted.

An important part of continuous improvement is to recognize when we are at the limits of our tools. That’s when we must seek outside expertise and proven ways of getting the job done. Some make the mistake in believing too hard in their approach to harvest low-hanging and on-the-ground fruit. They disdain complexity and sophistication, even when it’s called for. Others take the opposite view, wondering why anyone would waste their time reaching for apples when machines can harvest them in volume. Many just want to know where to get started, confused of by the variety of options, terminology and approaches. More leaders should pick apples. This would help them make better decisions regarding continuous improvement.

Design for X

Most apple trees in my neighborhood are like large, wasteful organizations. They started out small and grew big, in no small part due to a combination of good fortune and salutary neglect. Nobody gave any thought to how they were going to pick the apples at the very top once the tree was full grown. In some cases, weeds and saplings have grown up around the apple trees, making it difficult to access apples that are low-hanging or on the ground.

Studies show that more than eighty percent of the long-term cost of a product or service is set at the earliest design stages. Design issues go beyond blueprints. They include financial commitments, selection of key partners, sourcing of materials, promised features, delivery mechanisms, market niches served, and so forth. Most improvement efforts only address the twenty percent, representing operational costs.

Design for X is at the top of the apple tree, but in fact it’s no longer about picking apples. It’s about picking between options, or making long-term investment decisions, of how we want to grow apples. We make sure the trees don’t grow so tall that it’s too expensive or difficult to pick the apples. As we learn how best to get fruit from a particular type of apple tree, we can plant, breed, select, hybridize and otherwise design our orchard.

When designing for business outcomes, the X stands for Six Sigma, manufacturability, sustainability, service excellence, and so forth. This starts with the customer. We design the product or service the customer wants, as they want it. Then, we design the process to deliver the goods and services. Finally, we put policies, organization, incentives, systems, and all other infrastructure in place to maintain, improve and innovate the product and process.

Being Good Stewards

What’s missing from this metaphor of the continuous improvement apple tree is the management of the tree’s environment. Limbs need pruning and shaping, infestations need to be controlled. There must be adequate soil, sun and water. Imagine how hard it would be to design a perfect orchard without ever having picked apples.

Now imagine how hard it must be for leaders who set business strategy without ever having practiced hands-on continuous improvement. Organizations, like fruit trees, need care. Yet many organizations neglect these things. They go to the apple tree and shake it hard whenever they need savings. It’s no wonder that their continuous improvement apple tree yields less and less fruit every year. Good stewards keep their trees healthy, plant new seeds and profit from the fruits of a sustainable orchard.


  1. James La Trobe-Bateman

    February 1, 2021 - 9:51 am

    Great visual! I’m particularly interrested in Design for X. After 80% is fixed, that only leaves 20% for continuous improvement…

  2. Jon Miller

    February 1, 2021 - 2:03 pm

    Glad you liked it James. Another way to look at the Design for X issue is that even after we’ve done a great job at continuous improvement of the 20%, we still have 4X the opportunity to make things better by going upstream to the strategic and design decisions that “bake in” cost, quality, flexibility etc.

  3. Lexi DelPico

    February 3, 2021 - 4:17 pm

    This visual is super helpful to me, I had not heard it before. The apple tree seems like a perfect metaphor for the business processes. With the mention of designing for the consumer, it is even alike in the way that apples evolved to be appealing to mammals to eat, in order to have their seeds spread by them. I do have a question, is Design for X, essentially reacting to the unaccounted for parts of a business, the 20% which cannot be accounted for to begin with? Thank you!

    • Jon Miller

      February 3, 2021 - 5:17 pm

      Hello Lexi

      Glad you found it helpful.

      The Design for X is addressing the 80% of the cost, etc. that is set in stone at the design stage. Once you decide what your hospital, your automobile, your business model, etc. looks like and you invest in buildings, blueprints for parts, or vendor relationships, it can be very hard to change in order to improve the flow, quality and cost.

      You can have the most efficient factory in the world but if the design of the product makes it hard to build, uses expensive materials, is hard to test for quality, etc. then they will never be world class.

      Look at it another way. If a professor designs a curriculum wit wordy textbook, confusing exercises, random grading methods and so forth, students can only learn so much no matter how they study. Yes, the students should focus on the 20% continuous improvement, and study. On the other hand, good curriculum design (80%) can make the student’s life much easier by designing the learning experience with them in mind.

  4. Kathryn King

    February 7, 2021 - 1:21 pm

    Hello Jon,

    I really enjoyed this article because it provides a concrete metaphor for understanding continuous improvement. For me, I learn best from visualizing ideas in different ways and this article did just that! What I found most interesting about this article is your comparison of apple trees to large wasteful organizations. When an apple tree is planted, the planter does not consider how to reach the very top, most hard to reach apples. You might not consider the weeds and saplings that may make it difficult to reach the low or fallen fruit- just like most long term costs are incurred in the early stages of an organization’s development.

    Another point that stood out to me in this article is that in order to successfully grow an apple tree you must maintain the environment, and you have to have hands-on experience growing apple trees. Organizational leaders with no continuous improvement experience may fail because they do not know how to maintain their processes. My question is, how does one determine the right tools needed for continuous improvement when they have no experience? The same way an apple farmer determined the tools needed to collect the most hard to reach apples?

    • Jon Miller

      February 7, 2021 - 1:48 pm

      Hi Kathryn
      Thanks for your comment. I’ll try to answer your question in brief.
      “How does one determine the right tools needed for continuous improvement when they have no experience?”
      The simple answer is “go get some experience”. Ask questions. Read books. Look for success stories in similar businesses or environments. Find out what’s worked for others, but more importantly, why it’s worked. Go beneath the tools. What are the underlying principles at work? What factors represented challenges or contributed to success? How much of it was luck, or being in a target-rich environment where almost any tool would have made things better, and how much of it was due to having the right tools?
      When you’re getting started, don’t try to answer the big question of “what are all of the right tools?” all at once. That might not even be the right question. Instead, ask “where do I want to go and what is the one thing I need to learn to move in that direction?”

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