October 17, 2013
The Incremental Improvement Trap

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In today's nano-second, downsized, caffeine-buzzed business world, corporations are increasingly demanding that "their people" redouble their efforts to find new and better ways of getting the job done.

If this were the 1950's, an efficiency expert might be called in, a bespectacled, uncharismatic gentleman with a fascination for predictability, order, and control. His motto? "A place for everything and everything in its place."

It wasn't a great leap of faith for upwardly mobile managers to buy into this trendy "consulting service" since it seemed like such a safe way to yield increased productivity and reduced costs.

And yes, sometimes it did...

Eventually, this tidy little service matured into a full blown "organizational intervention" and was renamed and repriced.

The name? "Reengineering." The price? A lot.

The theory upon which this was based was difficult to find fault with -- that most company's processes were sadly misconfigured and, like the average American city, had grown to incredibly convoluted proportions without much thought for elegance, orderliness, or efficiency.

Systems, as the story went, were often disconnected from organizational needs, bringing with it an extraordinary amount of confusion, frustration, and a few too many martinis.

But let's dig a bit deeper.

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It's interesting to note that the root of the word "reengineer" is "engine" (as in the machine that drives movement forward) and the root of the word engine is "gine" -- from the Latin "ingenum", meaning "genie," the spirit that drives the engine (from the same root as the word "genius").

What reengineering enthusiasts have forgotten is the fact that it is the "genie/genius" that drives the engine -- the very same genie being routinely excised from our organizations for the sake of efficiency.

The result? Organizational "solutions" have become overly systems- driven and do not give proper due to the collective intelligence, imagination, and creativity of the workforce.

If you are a Lean Management aficionado or a Six Sigma fan, relax. I am not making fun of you. You are smart. You are committed. And you do good work. Yes, I understand that root cause analyses, histograms, fishbone diagrams and the like do have an important role to play in an organization's effort to operate optimally. Indeed, when predictability, control and measures are the key drivers, continuous improvement tools can be extremely useful.

However, (dramatic pause here, folks... drum roll...and a paradigm shift to go), predictability, control, and measures are not the only forces that guide a company's success.

Invention, innovation, ingenuity, and creativity are not merely "processes" that can be replicated by getting everyone to follow the dots drawn by some reductionist-driven consultant. For that, something else is needed -- something beyond business as usual -- something that embraces discontinuity, ambiguity, serendipity, spontaneity, surprise, paradox, mystery, and chaos.

(Sounds like an upstart law firm from the future, eh?)

The invention of penicillin? A surprise to the inventor. A complete accident in the lab. The invention of Teflon? An experiment gone awry. Vulcanized rubber? A big overnight boo boo. The discovery of Velcro? Certainly not a function of a fishbone diagram.

Time and again the literature speaks of breakthrough moments and breakthrough ideas being preceded by a breakdown of the existing order. "You can't get there from here", could be their motto. Logic is replaced by a-logic, analysis by intuition, fixed laws by mutable laws. Is light a wave or a particle? Both and neither, depending, of course, on who the experimenter is.

And what about the Theory of Dissipative Structures which posits that everything in this universe eventually falls apart only to reorganize itself at a higher level? ("The act of creation begins, first of all, as an act of destruction" noted Picasso).

Business leaders beating the drums of double digit growth need to wean themselves from their addiction to incremental improvement and allow more discontinuity in their lives. Lots more. In fact, I'd venture to say several standard deviations more.

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At the very least, our fearless leaders (and the people they lead) would be well-served to contemplate this pearl by Albert Einstein: "Not everything that counts can be counted; and not everything that can be counted, counts."

Indeed, honoring the laws of discontinuity is one of the most responsible things forward thinking business leaders can do. Otherwise they are merely moving the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic. (The boat is sinking, but they know exactly at what rate the chairs are sliding into the ocean.)

How then, does a company introduce "discontinuous improvement" into its culture? How does a company stir the soup, challenge the status quo, think more creatively, go beyond business as usual, explore blue sky, get disruptive, and otherwise foster a dynamic culture of innovation without the whole "thing" devolving into some kind of corporate Lord of the Flies?

Stay tuned, folks. We'll be tackling these and other vital questions in the weeks and months to come. (If you really can't wait, contact us).

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Posted by Mitch Ditkoff at October 17, 2013 11:17 PM

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