Monday, November 25, 2002

So, Just Answer My Question!

What Part of "Continuous Improvement" Don't You Understand?

One of our salesmen phoned this morning, somewhat disheartened. An error occured on a contract he wrote and the error log we keep cited "unclear contract" as the cause. When he learned of this, he posed the question (and I paste from his emailed question) "Was the print unclear because I was not clear and if so what could and should have I've done better."

He asked this question last Thursday. I asked him on Thursday to let me know if he had an answer back within 24 hours of him asking. In his phone call this morning, alas, he told me he had no response. I was bummed too.

This illustrates, in its simplest form, one of the core challenges of implementing a lean system -- closing the learning loop. Our sales guy asked a question, wanting to learn. No response. As a result, no learning, no momentum for progress, no opportunity to quickly apply a new insight, however small it might be.

Here's the rub: Did anyone act maliciously, intentionally thwarting his desire to learn? No. When posed with the question like this, will anyone say "Yes, it is a good thing to ignore honest questions."? Nope. Is this a story with which all of us can relate? Absolutely.

As I mulled this over lunch today, the following came to mind, in light of the central tenent of "continuous improvement".

  • Continuous means steady, regular, constant. Clearly, in this context, it could mean daily. Do I see some improvement, however small, daily? Do we see, as a company, some new example of improvement daily? Do we ask each other "what is better today than yesterday?" Robert Maynard, the late newspaper columnist who very positively influenced me by his writings, once wrote that he developed his journalistic insight due to a question his father asked him every night at the dinner table: "Robert, what did you learn today that you didn't know yesterday?" He grew to expect this question and began to relish the opportunity to discuss his daily learnings...starting in third grade. This daily pattern provides a benchmark against which I make assessments and take action.
  • Improvement means getting better. This implies I know where I am and can measure, quantitatively or qualititatively, an improvement in some parameter. In so doing, I can make assessments if the change helps or hurts.

So is it too much to answer a question in 24 hours? Can we possibly learn without conquering something as basic as this? Isn't this the "blocking and tackling" of continuous improvement?

I hope this is helpful.

PS. Bob Maynard's story, on the link above, is compelling. I hope you find it so as well.
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