“Everything is perfect and there is always room for improvement.”— Shunryu Suzuki

Improvement is often a challenge to make and sustain. Here are three of the common traps people and organizations fall into when attempting to make a significant improvement.

Trap #1 – Wrong Purpose
Your purpose should be one that stands strong and withstands the pressures it will encounter. For example, “Improve the quality of our software.” might seem like a fine improvement goal. However, I have seen this goal frequently overtaken and overwhelmed by a drive to get a feature out to customers ASAP. The goal crumbles and people hurry things along only to get trapped in cycles of rework.

This is amazing since the fastest way to get a feature out is through a good quality process.  A much better goal would be a goal that contains a clear business purpose. For example, “Drive smart quality to improve our speed to the marketplace.”

Trap #2 – No Ways to Measure Success
How do you know you are successful? I have seen many improvement initiatives fail even if they have a useful purpose because they did not have an answer to this question. I have often seen posters on the wall that say “Quality is Job #1”, but when I ask people how they measure whether they are achieving that goal, I get blank stares.

If quality is job one, they could be measuring many things. For example, how much time is everyone spending doing rework? Is that decreasing over time? These and other measures can help you understand your economics of quality and speed.  

The critical point is that if you want to get better, you need to measure whether you are indeed getting better.

Trap #3 – Blinded by methodology
Sometimes organizations do well at the first two items and then get “blinded” by a methodology. They bring in a methodology such as Agile and Scrum. They have enthusiastically chosen a methodology that can work well for their teams. Yet in implementing the methodology, the organizations lose track of their purpose and measurements of success. They do not customize the methods to their environment. Then when they remember to measure against the original goal, they find that the methodology created no improvement, and sometimes had a negative impact.

To do well at improvement, do the following.

  • Start with a clear purpose of why the improvement is significant to you and the organization.
  • Involve the key individuals at all levels of the organization to define ways to measure success. Involving all levels will ensure that when you ask the question “How do you know you are achieving the goal?” they will have a ready and meaningful answer.
  • Be persistent in working towards the goal. Keep the objectives and measures at the top of the list. Doing so will ensure that the methodology does not blind people. Instead, people will be working to make the methods achieve their goals and success measures.

I have helped teams improve their speed by ten-fold and more. All of them have done well working through my recommended steps.  Dazzle yourself and others by doing the same – or better! 

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett

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