What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless

What If #5 – Continuous Improvement Is Useless

What if our faith in continuous improvement is misplaced? What if one of the central tenets of Lean and Agile ways of working is just a delusion? Cargo culting? What if knowledge work is sufficiently unlike manufacturing that the whole idea of continuously and incrementally improving the way the work works has no payback? No point? What if, indeed, it’s useless – or even actually harmful?

Definition

For the avoidance of confusion, let me define what I mean here by “continuous improvement”. In general, I mean any change to the way we work, collectively, that makes us in any way more effective. That is, any change to a certain kind of task, or practice, which reduces the time and effort we take to get a certain kind of thing done.

For example, I saw one team swap out Planning Poker in favour of Silent Grouping, saving maybe 30 minutes * 10 team members = 5 hours for every fortnightly sprint planning session. On the face of it, this seems a small, but useful, improvement to the way the work works. But was it, really?

Some Of The Issues

Stepwiseness

If the working domain is merely complicated, as is largely true for production lines in a factory, then a standard process might make sense. Assembling e.g. a car has many steps, but those steps are largely definable. Improving any single step is fairly straightforward. Shorten the bolt to reduce the number of turns required to reach the necessary torque setting. Redesign the part(s), replacing the bolt and nut, or threaded hole, with a snap or push-fit fastener, thus speeding the operation (step) and maybe saving on parts costs too. Work in a complex domain, such as much of knowledge work, whether collaborative or not, does not much resemble this scenario.

Experimentability

In manufacturing, a standard process is relatively straightforward to sustain. Jobs (steps) are pretty much self-contained, and simple for new workers to pick up. Experiments (with e.g. improvements) are fairly simple to conduct. Cause and effect are fairly obvious. Change a thing. See (objectively) if that change makes a positive different. Again, knowledge work, particularly collaborative knowledge work, is not much like this. Change a thing. And guess whether the thing you changed made any kind of difference. Or did the difference (if detectable) come from a myriad of other uncontrolled – and uncontrollable – factors?

Distraction

All the time we buy into the assumption that continuous improvement is something we want, we’ll naturally spend time on trying to make it happen. Time which might perhaps be better spent on other aspects of making ourselves, or team and our organisations more effective. How many teams, organisations have any idea what continuous improvement is doing for them and their relative effectiveness? And even for those few that do, how often is continuous improvement a delusional frame, obscuring other reasons for the improvements they track?

Marginality

Even when a change does bring some positive uplift to effectiveness (or even efficiency), that uplift is most often marginal. Maybe we could better use our time, effort and focus on seeking out changes that bring a significant uplift to effectiveness. These may be rarer and more difficult to find, but maybe the payback is, overall, more worth having.

Irrelevance

Often, I’ve seen folks make a change which does bring some notional benefit, but not a benefit that translates to the better meeting of anyone’s needs. This is called out in e.g. Theory Of Constraints as “improving a non-bottleneck” and is a total waste of time, and money. The need to be seen to be improving something every day is a need in itself, of course. <wry smile>

Sustainability

For me, this is the biggest issue. If “process” is indeed one of those concepts from manual work a.k.a. manufacturing that has no place or value in knowledge work then even if we find an improvement that looks worthwhile, by what means do we “lock it in” for the future? The core premise of continuous improvement is that we build effectiveness, improvement upon small improvement, over time. By this path we become ever more effective. As a team, as a group, as an organisation, as an industry, as a society. I now question this assumption. I’ve never seen it work in practice. Not over the long haul. Humans, individually and collectively, are just too fickle, inattentive, capricious and random, Yes, we can continuously improve a machine. Continuously swapping out less effective parts for upgrades, like with an F1 car. But a complex adaptive social system is NOT a machine. Nothing like. And not much like a process, either.

Alternative Frames

Can we imagine an alternative to continuous improvement, as we generally understand it? How might we possibly become more effective without improving this step or that practice in the way our work works?

Just by way of an example, how about we focus instead on improving the quality of relationships in the workplace, both within teams and across teams? How about we focus on introspection and mindfulness in the hope of becoming “better” (more capable, more effective) people? How about we work on being more skilled at dialogue? How about we apply ourselves to (better) understanding some (more) of the principles underpinning the way the work works? How about we work on improving the healthy functioning of the complex adaptive systems we call “work”? How about we continuously examine our collective assumptions and their fitness to our shared goals?

These are all ways to improve, ways which lie outside the traditional scope of what we call “continuous (process) improvement”.

What if our unexamined assumptions around the value of continuous improvement are in fact a major blocker? For those of us who seek more effective knowledge-work organisations, maybe continuous improvement isn’t the most effective way to get there. I leave you with the following timeless wisdom:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

~ Socrates

– Bob

Further Reading

Why Continuous Improvement May Need To Be Discontinued ~ Ron Ashkenas
What’s the Problem with Continuous Improvement? ~ LeanCor article
How Continuous Improvement Went Horribly Wrong, for Some ~ Alan Nicol

Other Posts In This Occasional Series

What If #1 – No Management
What If #2 – No Process
What If #3 – No Telling
What If #4 – No Answers
What If #6 ~ Agile Nirvana
What If #7 – No Work
What If #8 – Agile Never Happened

 

6 comments
  1. As with all things, you don’t do continuous improvement for the sake of it. You do it for a reason. To solve problems that are hampering a team. To be able to deliver reliable software because your customers want that. To be cheaper and not go out of business.

    The why matters first. Every company that I have seen has something that needs to be addressed. Most have multiple things, it’s a recurring thing, so there is a need to improve continuously. But the problems will vary.

    Continuous improvement is not a recipe that you apply. A knob that you turn. Replacing a piece. You have to look at the whole, the system. The conditions in which people have to do their work. Expectations, support. It isn’t easy. But it’s needed.

    I recall Jerry Weinberg saying long time ago that “no matter how it looks first, it’s always a communication problem”. Most problems that I have seen had their root causes in how people collaborate and communicate. Teamworking, trust, listening, taking time for each other, respect. If you change that, for instance by attending to folks needs as you propose, you can get sustainable lasting improvement.

    • Yes, the WHY matters.

      People do cargo culting for a reason, too. Not that many folks would see those reasons as rational, until the needs driving the behaviour and the frame for choosing a strategy for meeting those needs are understood. I suggest the reasons you cite are post-hoc rationalisations, and don’t speak to the real reasons folks place their faith in continuous improvement.

      – Bob

  2. Ok, so you want us to “think different,” so I’ll bite.

    You took an example (planning poker vs. silent grouping) and then wondered if it was a real improvement.

    My answer is: It may or may not. Improvement without change, however, is impossible.
    I choose to change often, thank you.
    Most teams don’t improve because they don’t actually change anything. They either think they have a perfect system or just follow some ceremony and call it “Agile” or “Lean”.

    But if those guys you mentioned set their action as an experiment, they’d be one experiment older than they were before.
    I’ll take that any day.

    To use your language, you may want to ask that very same team: “does it address your needs better?” or “Does it addresses it in the way you expected prior to launching the experiment?”. Personally, I set expectations prior to doing actions.

    Either way, would their decision be permanent? I doubt.
    Would some bad ramifications emerge and only be clear in the future? Possibly. It’s the nature of complex systems.
    Would people be able to revisit their assumptions later if their strategy doesn’t serve their purpose anymore? Of course.

    This is why I like change small and continuous. It gives you ample permission to be wrong.
    Often, the opposite of that is not “big change” or purposeful reflection under a tree. It’s inertia.

    It is exactly “because” certain domains are complex, that experimentation emerged is a good strategy. Personally, I learned humility. As we say in Lean Startup, all you have are assumptions in a territory of high uncertainty. Believe me. I learned the hard way.
    Of course, if we were looking for scientist-like controlled, statistically-relevant experiments, where isolation and recreation of similar conditions are required to “prove” that an experiment works, then I’d agree with you. It’s impossible. But our goal is not to bring human knowledge forward. It is to move the needle. To create conditions for innovation and rapid opportunities for learning. In the last few years I’ve been involved in many innovation efforts. Guess what worked? Rapid experimentation with a lot of qualitative data.

    Frankly, I disagree with quite a lot of what you wrote. But that’s ok. You are exploring possibilities.

    The value I found in your post is that you challenge what we should try to ‘also’ improve, and consider opportunities that most of us will miss.

    On the “alternative frames”, you make a valuable observation that most people don’t focus on problems such as “how to improve the quality of the relationship in the workplace”, attend to each other needs, and so on.

    What you present are not problems. They are assumptions, mere hypotheses that 1. you identified an actual need 2. people care (or should care) enough 3. they want to do something about it.

    What I genuinely miss is why this would be an “either/or” rather than “yes and” proposition to continuous improvement.

    Assuming you observed and validated a specific need (problem or opportunity) that is shared with the people/team/org you want to involve, what impedes you you elicit and eventually suggest options on how to address them? Are you so sure about your solutions and how people will react to those that you don’t think shared experimentation is necessary?
    I didn’t think so.

    Forgive me, I’m a systems thinker. I like to co-design systems that let certain behaviors emerge. And in my effort to move the needle, I’m playing with integrating the Antimatter principle, Jobs-To-Be-Done and PopcornFlow (principles and mechanics) to deliberately extract those ethereal “folks’ needs” and then rapidly experiment ways to better attend to those needs.
    Perhaps it’s too step-by-step and experiment-driven for your liking😀

    • Hey, with the ‘What If?’ series I’m just inviting folks to some thought experiments, dude. Whether folks takes me up on that invite and actually engage in a thought experiment, or not, is entirely up to them. Did you do that already? Would you be willing to?

      – Bob

      • Bob, my apology. It seems that I missed the entire point for the post. Possibly of the whole series, if not the entire blog. I took “What if our faith in continuous improvement is misplaced?” as a way to discredit continuous improvement in favor of some other undefined or underdeveloped “alternative”. I didn’t want to necessarily defend continuous improvement, but I didn’t buy into the mechanical/complicated problem reasoning, so I gave reasons why I thought that, despite its origins in manufacturing, getting rid of experimentation – simply because someone perceives are hard to design – seemed like a spectacularly bad idea, especially in complex domains (and what complexity theories suggest). As I re-read your post and reply, however, it is, indeed, a hypothetical “what if” scenario. Fair enough. I suggest that the “alternative frames” you suggested are not really alternative to continuous improvement though. They are just new, often untapped problems. Imagine your goal is to “improve the quality of relationships in the workplace”. What action would you specifically do for, say, 2 weeks? What would be your expectation at the end of the 2 weeks? Would you consider adjusting your actions, based on what you learned from the gap between your expectation and reality? Oops, experimentation and continuous improvement again! Sorry!

      • Hi Claudio,

        No worries. Thanks for both reading and commenting. I’ll try harder to make the “What If” nature of my What If series of posts stand out. :}

        I came across a phrase today which sums up nicely what I try to do (with my blog, not least):

        “Disconfirming pathogenic beliefs; expectations of the way the world is and the way it’s supposed to be, which create suffering.”

        – Bob

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