Recently, there has been increasing chatter regarding how process improvement programs may have adversely effected corporate profitability. I read an article published in Forbes magazine in July 2013 in which the author even goes so far as to suggest that continuous improvement can be hazardous to an organization’s health. He then cites losses by Japan’s major electronic firms in 2012 and the fact that firms such as GE and Motorola have recently declined in their innovation leadership as some sort of corroborating evidence.
If you ask me, the downturn in corporate profitability is not as much a side effect of adopting the ideology of continuous improvement as it may be a perversion of the very continuous improvement ideology itself. Somewhere down the line, someone must have inaccurately defined a critical-to-quality characteristic (CTQ) (See my blog post dated May 12, 2012, entitled “The Importance of Precise and Accurate Definitions”) because quality, in its purest business definition, is the thing that underlies value—whether it is customer value or business value (See my blog post dated January 31, 2012, entitled “The Value Equation”). We also could be overlooking a very significant point in the light of an era where other significant negative factors may be at work. The bottom line is that you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to identify that an argument suggesting too much “improvement” is a bad thing is severely flawed and self-defeating. Come on, folks, no matter how much we want to make a compelling and intriguing argument, we cannot redefine a term or a concept to do so, right? Continuous “improvement” means to continually get better; if that is not happening, then you can’t possibly be doing too much of it; you have to be doing too little of it or doing it incorrectly. That is not an opinion, but a fact.
One possibility could be that the other negative factors at play are so compelling that the positive effects of continuous improvement are overshadowed. Since this is not normally the case, it would be easy for us to overlook those positive effects and even fall prey to the cum hoc ergo proctor hoc fallacy and suggest that continuous improvement is actually the “cause” of all our pain (See my blog post dated June 2, 2014, entitled “Correlation Versus Causality). On January 15, 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, piloted by Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River after encountering a bird strike that knocked out both engines. All 155 passengers were evacuated unscathed from the aircraft after it came to rest in the Hudson. The need for the emergency landing was “caused” by the bird strike, but had there been a different pilot at the controls that day the final outcome could have been much more negative than the 155 passengers getting a little wet and not making it to their intended destinations on time. I think it’s pretty clear in the case of Flight 1549 that Capt. Sullenberger was a positive factor in spite of the overall dramatically negative outcome.
So let’s look at this from a different angle—one that really highlights how severely flawed the argument regarding too much continuous improvement actually is. From this new angle, we’ll give the pundits the benefit of the doubt for a second and assume that too much continuous improvement is a hypothesis that even merits testing. Next, let’s logically test that hypothesis with premises:
-if too much improvement is a bad thing, then there must exist a level of improvement above which the system (or the business, in this case) is being damaged.
-If a company is at a level of improvement above the aforementioned level, that company can move to a better circumstance (or improve) if they took steps to reduce their level of improvement activity (so as to mitigate any future damage).
-If the aforementioned company does embark on a program to reduce the level of improvement activity and maintain it below the level above which damage will occur to the business, what should we call that program?
Need I say more?