The Dichotomy of Continuous Improvement

By Ron Pereira Updated on April 1st, 2021

continuous improvement balance

Every weekday morning my 14-year-old son and I take the 25-minute drive to his school. Neither one of us are big talkers in the morning so we typically listen to audiobooks to pass the time.

The topics of the books we’ve listened to vary greatly. Some are focused on our faith while others focused on leadership. The last two books we’ve listened to were written by two former Navy Seals: Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

The first book, Extreme Ownership, focused on the idea that we are all ultimately responsible for our own actions. The next book, The Dichotomy of Leadership, stressed the importance of balance. Some of the principles discussed included how to be aggressive but not reckless; how to be disciplined but not rigid; and how to be focused but also detached.

As I was listening to the Dichotomy of Leadership book I couldn’t help but think of the parallels to the continuous improvement world.

Lean vs. Six Sigma

Take the often hotly-debated topic of lean versus six sigma. For some reason there are people out there who take sides. Some folks opine that six sigma is nonsense and unnecessary while others believe lean is nothing more than common sense.

My opinion, and the opinion of Gemba Academy, is that continuous improvement practitioners would do well to remain humble and learn all they can about all aspects of continuous improvement. So, you should learn as much as you can about lean, and you should also learn as much as you can about the body of knowledge commonly taught within six sigma.

And, of course, you should never stop learning. Take the the topic of Agile. Many lean and six sigma practitioners have heard about it but haven’t studied it. This should change. Buy a book. Take a course. Watch some videos in order to see if there’s anything in the Agile body of knowledge that could benefit you or your organization.

In short, keep learning and remain open to different ways of improving.

Standard Work

Another interesting continuous improvement dichotomy involves standard work. Many seem to believe that once the standard is put into place that’s the only way to work. This is false. Standards are meant to be improved.

So, if you find yourself rigidly following the standard work without ever seeking out opportunities to improve, you’re doing it wrong. Standards are not handcuffs.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you don’t have any standards, you are also doing it wrong. You have likely heard the popular phrase, “without standards there can be no kaizen.” It’s true.

So, the secret to long term standard work success is to find the balance between having and following standard work, while also remaining open to and excited about the idea of constantly improving, and updating, the standard.


The last continuous improvement dichotomy I want to touch on involves coaching. We are big believers in the power of coaching done well. However, if we aren’t careful coaching can quickly lead to micromanagement.

To clarify, a coach’s job isn’t to tell anyone what to do or how to do it. Can they offer some encouragement and things to consider? Sure. But telling people what to do, or attempting to solve their problems, isn’t coaching.

On the other end of the spectrum, if the learner is flat out stuck and unable to move forward, the coach may need to engage a little more than normal to help the learner along. It’s a delicate balance that must be constantly checked.


  1. Matt George

    April 3, 2021 - 2:24 am

    Very interesting read. I can especially relate to the coaching dichotomy. I have often been frustrated by leaders who say coaching but are obviously micromanaging. It takes a real leader to coach well. We need more real leaders. Thanks for the insight. I may need to get that book.

  2. Brett Dolan

    April 5, 2021 - 8:40 am

    Great read. I think pointing out that standards are meant to be constantly improved. That is the only way for a company to move forward is by continuously pushing their standards and trying to create some sort of improvement. Coaching is also very important and I can think of numerous occasions in my life where someone takes “coaching” too far and becomes controlling.

  3. Steven Piscopiello

    April 6, 2021 - 9:03 pm

    Thank you for sharing. I cannot agree more that standards are meant to be improved. Many people are confined to their standard work and are not taking the opportunities to improve. If standards were not made to be continuously improved, companies would struggle to be more successful than their competitor. Therefore, it is so important to make constant improvements.

  4. Steven Bonacorsi

    April 14, 2021 - 8:05 am

    Thank you Kevin, Recently i read the Gemba Academy post by Jon Miller The Most Dangerous Idea in the World which was one of the best posts i have ever read. I loved the part about the teachings of Mr. Nakao-San and how he would refer to Cement Heads. I also was reminded of the Japanese culture where the word “fool” can almost be a term of endearment between teacher and student.

    To add to your traits of humility, balance, self-reflection, and open-mindedness, I would like to add teachable. It’s been said that hindsight is 20/20 because It’s easy to know the right thing to do after something has happened, but it’s hard to predict the future. I hope I never lose my curiosity, to be able to laugh at myself, that my ego remains humble, and that my spirit continues to relish in being a happy fool.

    Thank you Kevin, I appreciate you, respectfully Steve

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