When you start something new – move to a new city, start a new job, or pick up a new hobby – you tend to be inquisitive. You ask questions, try different roads, explore different options. You’re learning. You need to know more. But ultimately, over time, most of us settle into a routine. We no longer ask ourselves, “Why do we do it this way?” We just do it. Eventually, we become the experts. And when someone new comes along – moves to our city, starts work at our company, picks up our hobby – we’re happy to share with them what we’ve learned: the roads, options, the routine.
There is enormous value in sharing expertise, but also substantial risk that, if we’re not careful, the opportunity for continuous improvement can get lost.
Continuous improvement requires a conscious, ongoing, deliberate effort to improve anything and everything – processes, tools, products, services – either over time or all at once. There are a variety of techniques and methodologies that successful companies have embraced or uniquely built:
• Toyota Motor Company’s Jidoka and “Just-in-time”
• Amazon’s “be crystal clear”
• Google’s “continuous improvement at breakneck speed”
• Merck’s “make small improvements every day”
• Apple’s “vertical integration”
Each of these companies does things differently, but each is consistent in trying to address problems and improve what they do and how they do it.
Many times, you know there’s a problem and you want to put together a team and solve it. But you haven’t defined the actual problem or the needed outcome. As a result, you end up with these teams working together with a seemingly common goal, but they don’t really all understand the problem the same way.
It’s like looking at an elephant in the room. We all see the elephant, but I’m looking at his tail, you’re looking at his head, I’m looking at the left side, you’re looking at the right side. It’s the same elephant, but what we see and what we think needs to happen is going to be different.
When you start to solve a problem, you have to be crystal clear on what exactly the problem is.
When I was an engineer with GE, we made motor control centers. A motor control center controls all electric motors for a high rise building or a factory. It’s a large contraption, located in a central location, housed in an electrical room that generally exists on every floor of a building. It controls heating, air conditioning, basically anything with a motor. It generates a lot of heat and has to be cooled. It generates some noise and has to be silenced. Motor control centers occupy space and need electrical rooms to hold them. Ours was a good product, but we needed to sell more of them, which we were able to do by taking time to understand the real problem. Not just our problem to sell more.
In Los Angeles, the market I was in at the time, space is an important commodity, and an electrical room takes away from a building’s leasable space. Our motor control center was bigger than our competitors, meaning our client’s electrical rooms had to be larger if they bought our product.
The real problem: we were costing our clients potential lease income.
We had access to components that allowed us to create motor control centers with the smallest footprint in the industry, which is what we did. It was a win/win situation for us and our clients. I can’t even tell you how many deals I won because of that little strategy. And our client’s architects could design their smaller electrical room with our smaller motor control center and gain leasable square footage on every floor. Not to even get into the havoc this approach created for our competitors.
Engineering a solution isn’t single threaded. It requires numerous people with varying expertise to come up with a solution. It requires inquisitive people who are willing to question, “Why are we doing it this way?”. Passionate people who want to work together and who are willing to say, “I don’t understand”. People who can leave ego behind and point a finger to another and say, “You have the better solution.”
Then, the role of leadership is simply to provide a continuous improvement framework and the opportunity for people to direct their passion into identifying and solving problems and do the things that they do best.
Click here to read more about the continuous improvement examples.