Five Helpful Favorite Phrases for Continuous Improvement Beginners

By Jon Miller Updated on February 14th, 2021

The topic of continuous improvement is broad and deep. It’s easy for beginners to get overwhelmed by the variety of methods, tools and practices available. Even after grasping the technical jargon and settling on a particular approach, it may not be clear where to start. The truth is, as long as you avoid doing irreparable harm, it doesn’t really matter where you start. What matters is that you never stop. Here are five phrases that people find useful when getting started with continuous improvement.

Fix What Bugs You

Some continuous improvement efforts start out with prioritized action lists, cost-benefit analyses and decision matrices. These are valuable. However, they can raise the stakes, create fear of failure and stifle ideas turning into action. A better way to engage people in learning by doing is to ask them to “fix what bugs you.” In accordance with just-do-it continuous improvement principles, these bug fixes should be small, local, and things we can do ourselves. We get a sense of satisfaction when fixing what bugs us. Even if the business impact is small, creating support for CI through early wins is essential.

“This bugs me” is an intuitive way of deciding where to start or what to work on next. When we say, “I will fix this because it bugs me,” we are stating an intuitive, informal hypothesis. Sometimes we fix what bugs us and find afterwards that this didn’t make things better as expected. That’s a big discovery. As we tackle more complex problems, the actual root of the issue often not visible until we get up close and fix few things that bug us. It’s a form of learning by experimentation.

However, this is an inefficient way of experiments. Fixing what bugs us can be a non-scientific approach to continuous improvement. Without someone taking an overall view, people will sub-optimize a process, making it better here but making things harder over there. It’s a beginner approach, not recommended as the main phrase to guide organization-wide continuous improvement.

Take the Sixty Percent Solution

Sometimes a thing bugs us, and we find the perfect solution in a catalog. We propose the solution, wait for approval, wait for delivery, then receive, install and test it. If we are fortunate, it works. The only negatives are cost and delay. However, most improvement ideas don’t work exactly as planned the first time, or sometimes at all. As we tackle larger problems, the solutions become more expensive and their delivery times longer. And worst of all, because we’ve relied on catalog solutions, we haven’t been learning how to rapidly make and test small changes.

The idea of the sixty percent solution is to do what we can now. This is often a mock-up, simulation, a temporary or some proof of concept. What can we try today with what we have? Sixty percent is a passing grade, but barely. A sixty percent grade tells us that we know our subject matter well enough to understand the questions we got wrong. This tells us what we need to study next.

Be the Tortoise

In the fable of the tortoise and the hare, the faster animal is so confident with their lead that it naps during the race, allowing the walking reptile to beat it. One of the places organizations fail with continuous improvement is celebrating victory too early, growing satisfied with the small but fast improvements, or becoming too distracted with new initiatives. They fail to see their 60% efforts through to 99%.

Be the tortoise and not the hare. This one puzzles some people because it seems to be the opposite of many Lean ideas such as increasing velocity through the value stream, making workflows faster and smoother, or even acting today to put in place 60% solutions. In more words, be slow-and-steady rather than quick but inconsistent. Slow means small, deliberate steps. In practice, this is faster than leap-and-nap. Steady means sustainable pace.

Lower the Water Level

A reliable way to bug people fast is to take away their security blankets. Part of the genius of Lean management is that it pairs continuous improvement with the removing the excess security blanket that covers up problems. What if we had to do the same work with half of the lead-time, space, inventory, or number of touches? Often this is impossible, without first simplifying the process. Lean management challenges people to innovate by placing intelligent constraints on our processes.

The commonsense phrase that brings this idea home for many people is “lower the water level to expose hidden problems.” When we’re in a boat on a lake, we don’t notice the rocks, logs or other objects below the surface. They are not a threat to the boat as long as the water level is high. As the lake dries up, the water level recedes, and now those items become obstacles.

A good way to avoid the aforementioned sub-optimization risk of relying too much on “fix what bugs you” is to “lower the water level” by testing out one-piece-pull paced at takt time. As the hidden rocks become visible, we see which ones need fixing first before we can operate smoothly at with less slack or buffer.

Play Catch-ball

One of the ways that continuous improvement can get out of hand is when people start coming up with more improvement ideas than the leadership can manage. This would seem like a good problem to have. However, as suggestions take longer to approve, as the effort starts to outweigh the benefits, or as it grows more bureaucratic, CI can lose energy. One way to avoid this is have a well-designed suggestion system, but that in itself requires some study and commitment to build and may be a reach for beginners.

Another way to make sure that improvement ideas are relevant, right-sized and aligned with the organization’s priorities is the catch-ball process. This is a dialogue between two parties to reach consensus on what to do and how. In the traditional approach for cascading goals, the leader will “throw it over the wall”. This leaves little room for discussion of how to balance priorities. Catch-ball removes the wall and encourages fact-based two-way exchange.

Catch-ball is a two-way learning process. As children play catch-ball with a friend, parent or coach, they improve their arm strength, control, and aim. This allows them to throw farther, faster and more accurately. Their catch-ball partner adjusts where, how far and how fast they throw the ball, based on how the child handles the ball.

The parent-manager learns how the child-improver thinks about a problem. How well do they understand this issue? How do they plan to approach it? Where do they stop knowing and start guessing? Based on this, the leader can throw the ball back with a different spin or speed to see how the improver handles it.

Get Your Hands Dirty

These are five phrases meant to guide our practice of continuous improvement. The best way to learn whether they are true and appropriate in your context is to try. Compare your own experience to what’s described above. Maybe even coin a phrase or two that helps continuous improvement get started or carry on.

  1. Katie

    February 16, 2021 - 12:53 pm

    This was great for me as I am someone who is just starting out in their process improvement journey. The phrase that I have heard the most throughout my experience so far is “Fix what bugs you,” and I think that this is because its the most simple idea of all. To me, the main point of LSS is to fix things that do not work and make them as efficient as you possibly can. I like this phrase because sometime I think that for process improvement to be successful it has to be large in scope and complicated- but in reality the root of the problem can be relatively simple. I appreciate this article, and look forward to looking back to it as I continue with my LSS journey.

    • Jon Miller

      February 24, 2021 - 4:34 pm

      Hello Katie. I’m glad you liked it. Simple is best. Finding the simplest solution requires careful thought and research. Fix what bugs you, but don’t jump to conclusions. Keep studying!

  2. Alexander Barrett

    February 17, 2021 - 1:46 pm

    This was a very well written and understandable article for even beginners likes myself. I really liked the statement, “Lower the Water Level” as this can really show a company its potential while exposing the weaker links. When you focus in on one aspect and “lower the water level” it allows you to fix the problems that you wouldn’t have realized from an overall analysis. As more and more areas are focused on, the CI will keep on going. I really enjoyed reading this article and thank you for the knowledge that it provided me.

    • Jon Miller

      February 24, 2021 - 4:32 pm

      Hi Alexander. Thanks for your comment. Glad you like the article. Keep lowering the water level so you can tackle the hidden issues and avoid unintended consequences of local improvements. Jon

  3. Jake Walker

    February 24, 2021 - 4:11 pm

    I really enjoyed this article because as someone who is just learning the ins and outs of lean, it gets very overwhelming at times. The idea of joining a company after graduation and immediately being expected to make big changes in eliminating waste is a little scary but this article helped break it down and making it seem more manageable. The phase that resinates with me is lowering the water level, I like this phrase because it is a way to fundamentally change the way a firm attacks all different kinds of problems. Rather than digging through every process that you have looking for way to improve, you can deconstruct the system itself and expose all the ways that improvements can be made. It is not just making one simple change, it is making it easy to see multiple improvements.

    • Jon Miller

      February 24, 2021 - 4:31 pm

      That’s great to hear Jake. Hopefully these commonsense phrases will help get a practical understanding of what it means to eliminate waste. More courage to you!

  4. Shawn

    April 23, 2021 - 7:01 am

    Nice article! I’ve always enjoyed the “Fix What Bugs You” phrase and encourage everyone around me to Fix What Bugs Them. The focus as you mention needs to be at an immediate and local level (keeping these improvements within an arm’s reach). These are typically tied in with the “Two Second Improvement” mindset and can be extremely valuable so long as they do not create additional burden on the operator or the process(s).

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