A consultant named John Reeve posted the above picture on linkedin with the title “Continuous Improvement may lead to Mediocrity.”
I agree, but fear this will become one more typically oversimplified consulting message, such as “core competencies” (which led to companies shedding profitable businesses that were “outside their core”) and “embrace change” (which has become a non-behaviorally specific performance expectation in many companies, and led to needless training when effectively engaging people in change would be much more useful).
Rather than throwing out the baby of continuous improvement with the bathwater, combine system wide continuous improvement with visionary goals that are actually meaningful (not just churned out annually…or “stretch goals” can also become mediocre) and create a powerful combination. Continuous improvement can then be aligned to the meaningful goals.
A real example that I was privileged to assist with was the Managing Director of the Jamalco bauxite refinery’s vision in 2002 of going from highest cost producer of alumina in the global Alcoa system to tied for the lowest (he was satisfied with tying two much larger Australian refineries that had huge advantages in terms of scale). He described this stretch goal to his people on a simple flipchart with the believable message that highest cost producer was a not a good position to be in if the larger corporation decides to cut costs by closing locations. He then (with our help) effectively engaged a cross section of the refinery in continuous improvement targeted at reaching the broader vision. Through initiatives led by many hourly workers, such as reductions in raw materials lost through leaks, huge and sustainable savings were made and the refinery achieved their goals within a year. With continuous improvement they sustained their position in the cost curve and were the only refinery in Jamaica to stay open and at full production throughout the Great Recession.
Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Find real and meaningful stretch goals and align your system around improvements that are strategic to hitting the goals.
A great resource on this topic is Chris Crosby’s new book, Strategic Organizational Alignment, which can be found on our website at http://www.crosbyod.com.