|Continuous improvement can lead to great
success but your efforts must be focused.
Food for Thought about Continuous Improvement
In a recent Q&A with Harvard Business Review, Sir David Brailsford, an MBA and former head of British Cycling, highlighted a cycling team that used a continuous improvement process to eventually find great success. Brailsford, who has overseen teams that have won more than a dozen Olympic gold medals and three Tour de France races, explained to HBR how his team focused on making small improvements in various aspects of cycling. The hope was that all of these small improvements would add up to a significant overall improvement in the team’s racing ability.
After making a wide variety of small improvements, he found that the efforts didn’t accomplish the desired results. Brailsford said:
“Interestingly, when I moved from the track to the Tour de France, we didn’t get it right at all; our first few races were well below expectation. We took an honest look and realized that we had focused on the peas not the steak. We tried so hard with all the bells and whistles of marginal gains that our focus was too much on the periphery and not on the core. You have to identify the critical success factors and ensure they are in place, and then focus your improvements around them. That was a harsh lesson.” (HBR, “How 1% Performance Improvements Led to Olympic Gold,” Oct. 30, 2015)
As the biking team discovered, there’s a big difference between random improvements in a lot of different areas and focused improvements designed to achieve a specific objective. Before real improvement can be made, it’s important to identify the main objectives you’re trying to achieve and then work backwards to the smaller improvements that support that overall objective. Without taking such a top-down approach, you may find yourself spending enormous amounts of time “continually improving,” but not really making any meaningful progress.
Using Brailsford’s analogy of focusing on “the peas not the steak,” let’s apply this approach to something we can all appreciate: shopping for dinner. We’ve probably all experienced both the top-down approach to grocery shopping and the bottom-up approach. For example, try to place yourself in the following scenario:
You need to pick up something for dinner on your way home from work. You’re running late, so you want to spend as little time as possible in the store and, as always, not spend much money either. At a roadside store, you quickly get peas, ice cream, and Chinese noodles because they were on sale and you passed them on the way to checkout.
At home your spouse asks, “What’s for dinner?” With excitement you reply, “I was so efficient. I only spent 10 minutes in the store to get food, and I spent less than $10.” Your spouse says, “That’s great. Good for you! So, what did you get for dinner?” “I got peas, ice cream, and Chinese noodles,” you reply excitedly, “but the noodles were on sale and didn’t add any extra time to my shopping trip because I just grabbed them on the way to checkout. I didn’t even have to slow down or nothing!” “That’s wonderful,” your spouse says, trying to be supportive, “but what are we going to have for dinner tonight?”
You think about it for a few seconds and reply, “Did I tell you how efficient and quick I was tonight?”
In this scenario, our would-be hero focused on small, somewhat random improvements, but didn’t have the overall objective in mind. As a result, that main objective was not achieved at all. However, if desired, we could create some impressive graphs to show the improvements made by our champion between shopping visits over time. These graphs might look something like this:
By all appearances, the two graphs above show a steady trend of improvement in both areas. In fact, without the overall objective in mind, one might actually be overjoyed to share such graphs during the family’s next S&OP meeting. You might even win the coveted “Family Frugality Award” that month.
However, if your ultimate goal was to provide a healthy and satisfying dinner for your family, your high-level results might actually look something like this:
While this example is somewhat exaggerated, it illustrates the problems generated from this type of bottom-up approach to continual improvement.
By comparison, suppose you approached the same challenge, but did so starting with the ultimate goal in mind? Taking this top-down approach, what would be different about how you accomplished the same task? How would your planning be different? Your choices? And, ultimately, your measurements for success?
Suppose your ultimate measurement of success looked something like this:
How might this change the way you view the time and money graphs above, and how might it change your own level of satisfaction regarding your accomplishment of the ultimate goal? How might your family (customers) feel about your efforts within these two scenarios? How might this ultimate result affect those good-looking time and money graphs? What is “true success” in these scenarios?
The bottom line is that it does no good to “improve” things or to report on those “improvements” if they don’t contribute to the success of your ultimate goals. In a top-down approach, we must first ask, “What are the ultimate goals we’re trying to accomplish?” Then proceed to ask subsequent questions about how best to support those high-level goals. In the end, your train of thought may look something like this organizational chart:
You could then continue through this top-down thought process for dinner by filling in everything necessary to complete the main objective, down to the smallest improvements. Now that you have the main goal in mind, you can also intelligently consider issues like cost, speed, effort, quality, etc., as you implement, measure, and report your progress over time. The difference is that these small improvements would no longer be random. They would all be directed at achieving the ultimate goal and doing so in the most efficient manner possible.
This is true continuous improvement. You’ll find this top-down approach to continual improvement to be more successful, more meaningful, and more enjoyable than the bottom-up approach we sometimes employ.
Perhaps it will help to remember this verse when it comes to making and reporting true improvements:
As you ramble on through life, dear brother,
Whatever be your goal,
Keep your eye upon the doughnut,
And not upon the hole.
Some good questions to ask yourself include:
· Do I know the ultimate objectives of the company?
· Do I know how my initiatives and reports support the ultimate objectives?
· Can I show a direct relationship between my reports and graphs and the company’s ultimate objectives?
If you can’t answer questions like these, you may find yourself continually improving, but never progressing.
Think about it and see if this applies to your current improvement processes and reports.
Curt Porritt has more than 28 years of experience in the high-tech industry, including more than 23 years of upper-level management experience. He has been part of MasterControl’s executive team since 2006. Prior to joining MasterControl, Porritt served as President and CEO of 10x Marketing, an Internet marketing firm focused on helping companies realize more visitors to their Website and converting those visitors into revenue. In addition to implementing current marketing strategies within a rapidly changing industry, his career has been heavily involved with international business and creating effective corporate strategies. As Senior Vice President of Marketing for MasterControl, Porritt has created a repeatable marketing and lead generation process that has helped the company to grow by an average of 20% per year. With a degree in philosophy, he enjoys writing books, public speaking, and teaching in his spare time. He is also enjoys the outdoors and is an avid fisherman.