Get Back to the Basics for Continuous Improvement

Tags: continuous improvement

Have you ever watched a child learning to ride a bike? Who (or what) gets the blame when things don't go the way the child wants? The bike! The child might even argue that it's a stupid bike and impossible to ride.

What does this have to do with organizations wanting to succeed in continuous improvement? Grownups at work don't behave like that, do they? No, there is a crucial difference. The child must learn to ride the bike he or she has, while many organizations choose to invest in a new bike with more features in the naive belief that it will make their employees better cyclists.

The child eventually realizes that the problem has nothing to do with the bike but rather his or her own attitude and ability, while the people of the organization continue to live in denial. In the end, the child learns to ride the bike – the approach leads to the desired outcome. Meanwhile, the organization is soon cluttered with lots of old and "useless" bikes. With each new bike, it becomes more difficult to learn how to ride it – the approach leads away from the desired outcome.

What does the child have that the organization lacks? Someone who lets the child know (in a loving way) that there is nothing wrong with the bike. In many organizations, workers are often quick to agree when someone blames the bike. When the bike is targeted, you don't have to approach the real reasons for the undesired results: your own shortcomings. The child, however, will have to confront his or her fear and inadequacy. That's when the miracle of learning, increased self-confidence and improved ability happens.

So what can you do to reclaim the "passion for riding a bike" in an organization with a distorted self-image and a bike that feels too big? First, throw out all fancy and advanced racing bikes and dust off the tricycle. In other words, get back to the very basics of continuous improvement. Question every method, routine, meeting and tool, and get rid of everything that does not serve a purpose. "We've always done it this way" is no longer a valid excuse for holding onto old junk.

It is equally important to rid your collective self-image of historical debris. It has taken a lot of damage from all the failed attempts. Each time a new bike has been rolled in, instead of the real problems being addressed, the subconscious conviction that you will never succeed has been strengthened. It's time to stop running away from that conviction in search of better bikes. You need to process your failures and get rid of your unproductive and distorted convictions about yourself. Otherwise, you will never dare to jump on the tricycle. Your fear of failure will make you stand on the side claiming it's beneath you to ride on one of those.

When you're back at the starting point, your improvement journey can truly begin. To make the most of it, continuously modify your approach based on where you are in the journey. Someone who is learning to ride the bike is motivated by easy-to-reach targets and the highlighting of their progress and improved ability. A professional, on the other hand, is motivated by bigger challenges and wants the coach to visualize the improvement potential and point out the details he or she needs to correct. If you were to approach a beginner the way an experienced person wants you to, or vice versa, you would completely ruin the fun and kill the desire to learn.

Finally, never solely blame the bike. Always look both outward and inward. As often as you question the method, you should ask what more you need to understand about yourselves to get the results you want. When you do, you truly begin to build the people who will build your business.

About the Author

Joakim Ahlström is the author of How to Succeed with Continuous Improvement: A Primer for Becoming the Best in the World, which is available through Amazon. For more information, visit