How Can We Do This Better?

How Can We Do This Better?


As you may know, I’m between things at the moment. Aside from enjoying the summer weather, and restoring a rather sad Z1000 (2008 vintage), it’s given me the chance to reflect on what I’d like to do next.

I like to work with people. I like tough challenges. (Those two things seem to go together, don’t they?)

But above all I like to exercise my passion for getting involved in making things better. This post explores just what “making things better” means to me.


It never ceases to surprise me just how few people seem to grasp the power of compounding – something “both obvious and very surprising”. I’m also regularly surprised by how few organisations seem to understand the connection between compounding and continuous improvement. And I don’t mean understand it intellectually, but understand it viscerally – such that they take it to heart, ingrain it into the fabric of the organisation, act on it as if the very life of their organisation depended on it. Which, one could reasonably argue, it does.

 “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

~ W. Edwards Deming

And, again, I’m often surprised by how little priority deliberate and systemic continuous (e.g. in-band) improvement receives from senior management groups.

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

~ Chinese Proverb

Why it Matters to Me

I’m not so interested, myself, in making organisations more “productive” – with the implication of making a few rich people richer. I am interested, however, in helping as many of us as possible get more out of our lives. For those of us that might want to, of course. No pressure!

And, actually, I see no conflict between these two goals. The idea of obliquity suggests that it’s often a better strategy to approach goals indirectly, in any case.

I see “making things better” as a way to approach my goal of helping folks discover what fulfilment means to each, which can lead on to getting more out of our lives, and in turn to making everyone “richer” – in whatever way that suits each of us individually.

The Eighth Waste

Taiichi Ohno, widely considered as the father of the Toyota Production System, identified seven wastes of manufacturing (muda, in Japanese). He also considered an Eighth Waste – the waste of human creativity a.k.a. human potential.

Since very early in my career, it’s been this Eighth Waste – or rather, its reduction –  that has energised me and commanded my attention.

Doing Things Better

Putting these elements together, I’ve come to believe that there’s just one simple question that can act as a litmus test for what I’d like to be doing for the rest of my career:

“How can we do this better?”

Folks that constantly ask this question are the kind of folks I love to be involved with. Other folks, not so much.

It may seem like a very simple question, but I see some deep implications in each word:

How CAN We Do This Better?

People always have a choice. Although many organisations act as if its people don’t. The word “can” reminds me of this, and that we have many options – potential solutions – open to us for each improvement we consider. And many options as to which particular improvement to pursue, too.

How Can WE Do This Better?

For me, continuous improvement is primarily about people. About affording people the chance to realise more of their innate potential. And doing that together, in social groups, teams, units and communities. But more than this, the “we” here means, for me, the whole organisation. If we allow “we” to degenerate into small groups, cliques, silos or restricted corners of the organisation, it’s very likely (Ackoff says inevitable) that local improvements will make the overall performance of the organisation worse.

How Can We Do THIS Better?

Not “things”. Not “everything”. THIS thing. Here. Now.

How Can We DO This Better?

For me, improvement is about DOING. In other words about action. But action informed by theory.

“He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.”

~ Leonardo Da Vinci

When we take action, informed by theory, we are in essence performing an experiment based on a hypothesis. This is the essence of the scientific method, as described by Bacon, and as more recently expressed in the Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) cycle at the heart of intentional continuous improvement efforts.

How Can We Do This BETTER?

Not “perfectly”. Not simply “how can we do this thing, today?”. Better.

Better than the last time we did it.

This of course implies we have some idea of how well this thing turned out that last time. Or even better, some idea of how well this thing turned out of the course of any number of previous times we did it. Ohno calls this idea “standard work”.

Note that we’re not so concerned with how we did this thing on previous occasions. Although that might be useful information, too. Assuming the previous way(s) of doing this thing are a good starting point for doing it better (kaizen). Sometimes, though, an entirely fresh start (kaikaku) offers more scope for improvement.

HOW Can We Do This Better?

I’ve saved this one ’till last, as in some ways the “how” is the least interesting for me.  I have faith that if the folks involved have a modicum of smarts, and a modicum of ability to work together, the “how” soon gets figured out. That’s not to say I see the “how” as unimportant:

“By What Method?… Only The Method Counts.”

~ W. Edwards Deming

Aim and method are essential. An aim without a method is useless. A method without an aim is dangerous. It leads to action without direction and without constancy of purpose. (from Wikipedia)

– Bob

  1. The why is more important then the how, as you make clear already by ending with the how. There are enough solutions, understanding the why to improve is crucial to pick the ones that might be useful.

    In all improvements that I see, collaboration is key to make things work. The better people build an shared understanding, decide to take action together, team up in a respectfull way, the higher the chance of success.

    Thanks Bob for another great blog!

  2. Thanks, Bob. This met my need for understanding that “how” isn’t as important as I’ve thought it was, but that people are. I also thought this was particularly helpful: “Not “things”. Not “everything”. THIS thing. Here. Now.” Too often on my current project, discussions about THIS thing turn into discussions of project deadlines and the overall backlog.

  3. That felt very good. Still, I actually want to start with who cares and what do they need and want. I think you are starting after that has been known for a long time and needs no further discussion now. I think you are already succeeding and are now trying to succeed even better, did I just miss that part or was it left unsaid?

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