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Continuous Improvement Myth

How often do we hear that organisations should ‘continuously improve’ – this does not make sense because it is theoretically and practically impossible, and we delude ourselves if we participate in perpetuating the myth.  Stop for a moment and consider what this really means. It implies that organisations should be getting better during every second of their lives, which is clearly absurd. Even the best organisations make improvements in small or big steps and they are inevitably accompanied by concurrent or simultaneous steady or declining performance. A great deal of positive improvement initiaves come from the reactive analysis of things that have gone wrong or have deteriorated – improvement, whether reactive or proactive, is only one element of a plan-do-check-act (to improve) cycle (PDCA).

After long periods of successive improvements an organisation may approach becoming optimal and subsequently endure by just focusing on remaining equitably aligned with its stakeholder’s needs and expectations. In nature there are enduring species such as the Triops Cancriformis (tadpole shrimp), which has existed for 220 million years living long before the dinosaurs appeared and after they disappeared. Organizations do exist with generic unchanging objectives and demonstrating on-going flawless customer satisfaction.

In practice change and improvement is initiated and implemented via the PDCA management cycle, which operates throughout an organisation from task level up to top management level with varying degrees of efficiency and effectiveness. Although improvement may be suggested at any point in the PDCA cycle it only happens when the agreed action has been implemented – PDCA change is therefore not ‘continuous’ but ‘continual’. Even quantum physics teaches us that apparent continuous change is an illusion. The reality is that change takes place via quantum jumps - it is only the mind that joins dots into a continuum.

However noble the aspiration to continuously improve, even the best organisations will contain stagnation and deterioration as they continually attempt to stay aligned with stakeholder’s needs and aspirations. Improvement can only ever be continual and often involve backward steps before achieving an improvement. Objecting to the use of ‘continuous improvement’ rather than ‘continual improvement’ may seem pedantic but using incorrect terminology can mask misunderstandings. If managemnt professionals are to be respected and taken seriously it is important that they not only say the right thing but also understand why it is right.


Featured in Insight (July 2015)