Most forward-looking business people are avid advocates of the principle espoused by noted author, Jim Collins, that “good is the enemy of great.” But how many recognize that great is the enemy of better? Of course, it’s great to be great, but if you get seduced into being content with greatness, you won’t stay there for long. Markets change … technologies change … companies change … people change … everything changes – and if you’re not getting better, you’re falling behind. There’s no in between.
Better not get tempted by the “icing.”
Few astute leaders would argue otherwise, but the way they typically operate demonstrates a shallow appreciation for what it takes to get employees fully engaged in getting better all the time as a persistent way of life.
They declare they want employee input and empowerment … they brag about an open door policy … they set up culture clubs and suggestion committees … they create a bunch of recognition programs … they hold quarterly town hall meeting … and on and on and on. When you add it all up, though, they’re just stacking one program and activity on top of another, and they delude themselves into believing that constitutes a substantive approach to getting employees actively engaged in making things better.
Here’s the quandary. They’re not entirely off base. Most of that stuff can help to some extent, creating an illusion that the organization is on the right path. That illusion makes it all the more difficult to heighten awareness and raise expectations for what a true continuous improvement mindset and methodology can produce when it’s imbedded at its systemic best. In the end all those programs and activities are little more than the proverbial icing on the cake. Unless organizations get real and focus on the “cake” of day-to-day systems and processes, improvement efforts ultimately wind up anemic, episodic and unsustainable.
Better make it a habit.
Getting past that trap takes a systematic routine that generates a sustainable output of improvements from every corner of the organization on a constant basis – in other words, a “continuous improvement habit.” That’s mainly due to the dual essence of human nature. The animal part of us wants things to be predictable, stable and unchanging — what all living creatures crave to feel safe and secure. The human part of us wants to exercise our unique gifts of imagination and free will to push the boundaries, explore possibilities and color outside the lines of the natural world. In order to optimize people’s improvement potential, organizations need to appeal to both aspects of that nature. In a nutshell, employees need a habit to replace the habit of doing things over and over again the same way.
Then, make the habit better.
But there’s a subtle yet significant catch in that recipe. Even the continuous improvement habit or process itself needs to be scrutinized constantly so the organization is always “getting better at getting better.” That’s the captivating subtitle of a book by Doug Lemov called Practice Perfect. His premise is simple yet compelling.
“We love competition, the big win, the ticking seconds of the clock as the game comes down to the wire. We watch games and cheer, but if we really wanted to see greatness we’d spend our time watching, obsessing on, and maybe even cheering the practice sessions instead. Practice Perfect … shows that anyone, in any field, can come to appreciate that practice, not games, makes champions.”
Here’s one critical twist on Lemov’s contention. The notion that “practice makes perfect” is a fallacy. Truth is, practice makes permanent. It only makes perfect if you’re practicing the right things. If you’re practicing to make the perfect buggy whip when the rest of the world is shifting toward automotive transportation, you can practice with perfection every minute of the day and wind up obsolete. Likewise, if you’re practicing how to make the best automobile in the wrong way, you’ll wind up losing the game.
It all comes down to a clear and compelling conclusion. Organizations always need to be “getting better at getting better,” or they’ll eventually get caught in the alluring and misleading trap of seeing greatness as the pinnacle of success.
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