Let’s take for example the marathon runner. A world class time is to run a marathon in about two hours, yet — let’s say — we are currently running the marathon in about three hours, which is still pretty quick. Gee, if we believe real hard and run as fast as we can, we certainly should be able to reduce our time by 33% and run it in two hours! That doesn’t sound too bad. Let’s do it!
Unsurprisingly, very few improvements in sports or business come by just trying really hard and thinking about a target number. Instead, it ultimately consists of step by step changes following a specific program of improvement. Yes, we do periodically discover a disruptive change (PCs, internet, social media, mobile phones, mobile apps, etc.) that results in a change in approach and a huge change in productivity.
I was feeling proud of myself for getting through to the new CEO. He finally believed my numbers showing that a key problem was that we consistently missed our schedules by 20% by underestimating how long it would take for us to complete our projects. My solution was pretty simple, we start planning the next product 20% earlier (about three months for most projects). His solution? Buried in his “how we get well” Powerpoint slides at the corporate all-hands meeting was one bullet that said “and do it all 20% faster ….” Did we succeed? No.
While we want to stay positioned to leverage the ability to make a significant improvement (usually by letting individuals pursue innovative ideas) the majority of improvements between these major innovations come from incremental changes to existing processes. These are rarely 33-50% improvements, but often 3-5% improvements that build on themselves in a compounding way.
For more on where innovations come from see The Project Manager’s Secret Of Innovation
We had finally gotten our organization to deliver our software upgrades on time and with good quality. We had simultaneously cleaned up our backlog of requested customer changes and just about all reported defects. Our customers were delighted and rewarded us with a flood of new requests for improvements.
However, not everyone was happy. One major customer, who was always pushing us to do more, told us they did not want to take our newest version. While we had given them everything they had asked for, it turned out that it was too many changes for them to absorb into their business processes.
While we had worked hard and accomplished a lot as a team to achieve this new level of productivity and quality, none of the changes in how we worked were very big or very hard to implement. In this case we simply got better at doing what we were already doing. These small incremental improvements overcame our problems, and our backlog.
For some specific examples of improvements, see It Should Work The First Time
Focusing on incremental improvements while staying positioned to jump on new revolutionary changes is a formula for staying competitive and in business (or in our job) during both good and bad times. While this may be obvious, too often I’ve observed companies focusing on the “big win” and neglecting the day to day improvements that can keep them in business and keep them ready to capture that big wave of the future, a step ahead of their competitors.
Are you doing enough incremental improvements to keep you competitive until the next big thing?