Toward A Culture of Constant Improvement

Tom Peters

A fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. Who could ask for more? Well, maybe some hustle, a cooperative attitude. But surely, with those added ingredients, we’ve described the ideal worker. Such has been the case for the last 200 years, the duration of the Industrial Revolution. But it falls hopelessly short amid today’s struggles in every marketplace.

Consider a working man I recently observed at the popular cafe El Espejo in Madrid. Goya’s most stunning canvasses are but a thousand meters away, in the Prado. This man could well be Goya’s descendant, an artist of exquisite merit.

He’s the cafe’s bartender. I became mesmerized watching him pour draft beers. With confident wrist action, he moved the mugs through a precise series of figure eights, swirling the liquid around the circumference of the glass without creating a single bubble of foam. When the beer filled three-quarters of the mug, he almost imperceptibly changed his pattern, instantly drawing forth exactly the desired head. Then, after shifting the mug to his left hand with sleight that would do Houdini proud, a scraper magically appeared in the right hand, which he snapped effortlessly across the mug to remove excess foam. With practical calculation, he left just enough to create a trace of round head as the mug arrived at the patron’s table.

This barman joins a short list of artisan masters I’ve marveled at over the years. He captures precisely why our product quality still sags and why we are having such trouble confronting competitors from Korea to Sweden.

We expect pride, perfectionism, artistry, and a passion for constant improvement from software designers, poets, professors, and every one of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s violinists. But oddly, we don’t demand, or even expect, such inspired performance from barkeeps, grocery checkout clerks, hotel housekeepers, and machine-tool operators—or even their supervisors.

Because our expectations are low, we create and perpetuate a vicious circle: Low expectations lead to low demands, which in turn lead to workers’ mental retirement on the job. Mediocre dispirited performance is usually the result. Thence, the next tough round of union negotiations or the annual, panic-stricken search for automation to remove “worker variability.” This last term reveals our shrivelled hopes, like that “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”—we seek a sure-fire mechanical outcome an engineer can specify today. We don’t believe the sky is the limit. We don’t expect the average worker to constantly improve in the face of new problems and opportunities. We don’t imagine that he or she can create new solutions.

“Best is the enemy of better,” says Milliken & Co. President Tom Malone. Put differently, when the competition is heating up (and where isn’t it?), getting perpetually better is the survivor firm’s only acceptable strategy.

Poor Ford! Despite its exceptional accomplishments during the last 60 months, every morning it faces Honda’s and Toyota’s trademark burning desire for constant improvement. Each day, Toyota implements another 5,000 or so worker ideas, saving yen by the million and adding to its formidable quality record. Ford is about twice Toyota’s size—so anything less than 10,000 implemented new suggestions a day means that Ford is falling further behind. Or, to quote a not-so-articulate spokesman, “We’d better keep getting more better than they are getting better. Otherwise we’ll be less better or more worse.”

Recently, I’ve conducted a pair of day-long discussions on constant improvement, one with the top six people in a multi-billion dollar U.S. retailer, the other with the 100 publishers and editors of a fast-growing, quality-conscious British magazine and newspaper firm. That “simple” subject, constant improvement, proved to be much more than met the eye. The deeper we dug, the more we realized that implementing it means uprooting virtually every tradition of management.

To begin with, constant improvement’s accompanying baggage includes trust, perpetual training, teamwork, risk-taking by everyone (starting with managers who must let go), continuous recognition, full-time listening, coaching rather than brow-beating, and scrapping the traditional adversarial ways we deal with outsiders (who must, by definition, be part of any encompassing constant-improvement program).

The most discomforting revelation was that we don’t even expect constant improvement from our managers. We expect bosses to “make budget,” “accomplish their MBO.” But we don’t expect a supervisor, or perhaps even a staff vice president, to weave a latticework of thousands of tiny improvements to the business’ practices, thus paving the way to sustainable performance increments.

We mulled over dramatic financial incentives to spur the change—and came to agree that, important as they are, such inducements detract from a sound constant-improvement effort. Most all bosses know how to dangle the bucks and induce a frenzied scramble to a new performance peak. But frenzy is the enemy of a habit of perpetual improvement. On the way to that new peak, each and every person must add new routines, improve processes, and enhance skills that will allow us to stay at the new level and quickly move ahead to even greater heights.

What does it mean to achieve a true culture of constant improvement, where constant improvement, not just working (even with hustle), is the ho-hum expectation for sweepers and the chief of sweepers alike—an environment where the average employee acts like that bartender/artist at El Espejo?

Next week, I’ll spell out a 10-point program for putting constant improvement at the top of your corporate agenda.

(c) 1988 TPG Communications.

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