Piloting Continuous Improvement

By Jon Miller Updated on July 25th, 2021

During several recent conversations with customers, I found myself discussing the pilot as an effective way to roll out continuous improvement. Like many terms that have settled into common usage in the business world, this can mean different things to different people, based on organizational culture and context.

What Do We Mean by Pilot?

In the entertainment industry, a pilot is generally a smaller, cheaper episode of a proposed new show. When audiences respond well to a pilot, it may be picked up for a series. Often there are changes to casting, tone, or other creative aspects based on audience feedback.

In scientific research, a pilot study represents an early phase in the process that examines the feasibility of an approach. This study is carried out on a smaller population, with the goal of determining if the same approach can be used in a study of a larger scale.

In woodworking we drill small holes, called pilot holes, to guide a larger drill for the finished diameter. In ovens and stoves, pilot lights keep a small flame burning so that a larger flame can be lit easily. Pilots help us get started.

The Ancient and Essential Role of the Pilot

The term pilot comes from the Greek word pēdon meaning the oar or rudder used to steer a ship. By extension, the pilot was the person who steered the ship safely in and out of the harbor. A local pilot who knows the waters well takes a small boat out to a large visiting ship, and guides it safely past known hazards and to shore.

The American author and humorist Samuel Clemens worked as such a pilot on the Mississippi River before the Civil War. Calling out two fathoms of depth, this inspired his pen name, Mark Twain. Today, we have pilots who guide aircraft to safety. Used in a business context, it’s a project or team that leads the organization safely to a new condition.

Pilot Projects in Continuous Improvement

We often see pilot projects in continuous improvement at the very start of an organization’s journey. This is logical, as it’s easier to start small than to do everything at once. For some organizations, the pilot project is a lot like a pilot TV episode. If it’s not popular, the show is canceled. If it’s well-received, continuous improvement is funded for a season.

Even organizations that are already committed to continuous improvement run pilot projects across different phases on their journey. This is common when adopting a new practice, process design, or system.  How can we develop problem-solvers across all levels of the organization? Let’s pilot the Toyota Kata approach. How can we incorporate milk runs into our logistics system? Let’s run a pilot with a couple of suppliers.

The Pilot Project as Permission to Fail

One point of difference in the conversations with customers was how to view the success and failure of pilots within business endeavors. “The pilot must be a success,” was a common refrain. This is understandable. We want continuous improvement to take root. It’s important to get off to a good start. A well-designed, well-executed pilot is essential for guiding the organization past their initial resistance or doubts.

However, what I observed is that in some cases, the emphasis on success put undue pressure on the pilot to deliver results, dampen voices of dissent, and present a positive picture of continuous improvement. A seemingly perfect pilot project may hide problems or be a sign that our expectations are too low. A continuous improvement pilot without a few missteps, surprises, and lessons learned can’t be called a success.

When piloting a ship or an aircraft, we can’t afford to experiment. These pilots must be skilled and certified, able to guide their passengers and crew to safety ten times out of ten. When piloting new methods and practices within an organization, we must likewise observe safety precautions. But for pilot projects in business, experimentation with the goal of learning from failure is a requirement. A seemingly perfect pilot may fool us into thinking it will be smooth sailing the whole way. The key is to guide the ship safely into the harbor while learning where the rocks are, how the winds and waters move, and how to make small adjustments.

  1. Jonathan Wiederecht

    July 27, 2021 - 7:58 am

    Jon – really appreciate your dialogue, especially the goal of a pilot is to learn “But for pilot projects in business, experimentation with the goal of learning from failure is a requirement”. All too often success is equated to perfect, as expected results. With the Olympics happening now, we see how distorted/skewed our perspective becomes when someone comes in second place and the headlines says that they “lost”. Those same folks might say a “red metric” is a sign of a loser, not an opportunity to improve.

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