Making Constant Improvement a Way of Life

Tom Peters

Constant improvement (CI) is easy to applaud as a competitive necessity, relatively easy to get started on, but devilishly difficult to implement as a way of life. It inverts a surprisingly large share of our beliefs about the nature of work.

Nonetheless, I have observed firms, large and small, that are making the transition. From them, I have extracted a ten-point platform for achieving what I described last week as a "culture of constant improvement."

1. Make constant improvement "strategic." The culture of CI, says one executive, must become "our 'it,' what we're about." Making CI a way of life is as strategic as revitalizing R&D or dramatically altering the firm's market position. Effectively implemented, CI is not a sometimes, for some people, affair. Constant improvement, per se, becomes the firm's chief source of the ever-elusive "sustainable competitive advantage." Some savvy observers have called the commitment to kaizen, the Japanese word for continuous improvement, the biggest difference between Eastern and Western management.

To be strategic, CI must be more than a program. It must seep into every cranny in the firm, be talked up ceaselessly, and predominate the executive team's deliberations and calendars.

2. Approach constant improvement systematically. Don't let CI become a gooey concept; it's amenable to planning and measurement. Each manager (and eventually non-manager) should have a personal and group CI plan, which lays out training and time commitments, as well as hard results to be achieved. Progress on plans should be visibly tracked—that is, signs of CI (such as charts or displays concerning improvement projects) should dot the workplace.

3. Emphasize team as well as individual accomplishments. CI by every person will best be served by creating work teams, both natural work groups and contrived cross-functional teams. Group enthusiasm (and peer pressure) are essential to building and sustaining momentum behind CI.

4. Train. CI is not mysterious or soft. Train in "hard" topics (statistics, economics, accounting, problem analysis) and "soft" ones (interpersonal dynamics, team leadership). CI doesn't come naturally, even though it taps a very natural tendency to want to improve, so long suppressed in the average workplace.

5. Think small!! The toughest part of CI for American executives, typically hooked on "breakthrough" thinking, may be learning to adopt a "fetish for the small," as one CI-obsessed manager calls it. Small is more important than big—that's the gospel of CI. Big successes will ensue cumulatively from a CI process; but continuous, tiny, half steps by each and every person and group is the trademark of this new game.

6. Remove the fear of failure. Speaking up and trying even tiny new things is tough enough. But living with failure in characteristically failure-averse organizations is a much tougher nut to crack. And to test and try even the tiniest new tricks, all the time, means that minute to minute, failures will, by definition, ensue.

Managers must learn to seek out good tries with temporarily lousy results—and learn to applaud them as vigorously as the small successes. "Make failure a way of life," is not a bad CI motto. CI is harder than the familiar analogy about learning to ski ("if you're not falling down, you're not learning"): It's about skiing on an unknown and more difficult slope each day.

7. Make recognition and celebration a CI staple. Weekly newsletters and occasional videos focusing on successes (and useful failures), spontaneous applause, weekly recognition meetings, monthly or bimonthly recognition bashes are a must—and must also be pitched
toward small triumphs.

Financial awards may be one element of recognition, but big ones, as noted last week, may detract from building momentum. Vigorous but patient pursuit of improvement, forever, is the point, not breathless pursuit of one dramatic win, tomorrow.

8. Mandate involvement. Participating in the effort must eventually become non-voluntary. Let managers get committed at their own pace (albeit with lots of nudging and peer pressure)—early forced compliance will surely backfire. But everyone ultimately must hop on board, and those who dig in their heels too deeply, and for too long, must see their continuing reluctance reflected in their performance evaluations.

9. Diffuse good ideas. As CI begins to take hold, there will be lots of successes to report (and interesting failures to learn from). One person's (or team's) success can readily be copied, with appropriate adaptation and enough originality to get the copycat committed to his or her unique version of the idea. Carefully managing the good-idea diffusion process—providing lots of case data without forcing replication—is essential to keep up the momentum.

10. Set the tone from the top—or else. If CI is not obtrusively on the leader's agenda, it won't be on the agenda at the front line, where it counts. The vital issue is getting busy executives, slaves to the big picture, to lavish praise (and time) in support of the miniscule. Big ends will only result from small beginnings if big bosses develop unmistakable passion for small beginnings.

This is not a "pick and choose" list. Do all ten or don't bother to start. Sustainability defines a successful CI culture; and "all ten or else" is, in turn, the essence of sustainability.

Are you game?

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.