Saturday, December 02, 2006

Incremental solutions

Mary Poppendieck recently pointed out this piece on one of the mailing lists I subscribe to.  It is a piece in Fast Company magazine online about Toyota's approach to improvement.  It is well worth reading.

Working to improve things in your organization means you have to tread a narrow path.  On the one hand if everything is good you risk complacency - nobody sees the need to change or improve anything.  On the other hand if things are bad and need changing then you risk depressing everyone by constantly talking about problems and failings, people get defensive and don't want to change - this takes us into the arguments around appreciative enquiry.

So, you want to motivate people to change but you don't want to get them all defensive.

The Fast Company piece describes how Toyota are constantly making improvements to their process and products but nobody seems to be defensive or upset by failings.  The pull factor is the urge to do better, its the promise of a better tomorrow, a more productive company, a better factory, more enjoyable work.  To some degree Toyota may have pre-selected for employees with a problem solving attitude but they have also created a culture were people see opportunities to get excited about and not problems to get depressed about.

The net result is that Toyota are constantly improving, and that means many incremental improvements and solutions on top of existing incremental improvements and changes - thousands of changes a year in one plant.

I like this, I'm a fan of incremental change, incremental improvements and solutions.  However I'm also aware that incremental change often gets a bad press, that's because incremental change can go horribly wrong and make things worse.

The problem with incremental solutions is that you don't tackle the underlying problems, rather you only tackle the immediate problem and the obvious issues.  Unfortunately we see this with many Government actions: tariffs to protect industries from overseas competition, financial support for declining industries, sticking plasters for infrastructure - sometimes we need a root and branch overhaul, or we need to recognise that some activities have no long term future and we are better letting them slowly die while we developing new ideas and industries.

Sometimes radical change is needed and I don't want to say that incremental change can solve every problem.  But, and this is a pretty big but, if you need radical change then you have failed at incremental change.  The objective of incremental change should be to ensure that you never need radical change because you have already adapted yourself to a changing environment.

Look at Toyota, lots of small incremental changes, you don’t see major change programmes like you do at Ford or GM.

The problem for incremental change is to avoid simplistic solutions which only tackle the immediate problem, the symptoms if you like.  Before you make incremental changes you need to fully understand that which you are proposing to change.  You need to think deeply about the issue/opportunity/problem, talk it through with other people, maybe model the situation and your proposed solutions, maybe create some future scenarios, engage in systems thinking, understand the real problems and look for alternative solutions. 

And when you do change look to see if your change makes a real difference, or whether there are any unforeseen side effects.

In short: incremental change needs to be thought through and considered in depth.  Don't jump at the first thing you think of.

Having said all that don't let the need for analysis and deep thought stop you from making a change, don't get caught in paralysis by analysis.  Get use to changing often and changing fast.  So what if you get things wrong once in a while?  You can always put things back the way they were and mark it down as a learning experience.

That's an awful lot to do for a small change, but then, I never said this stuff was easy.  If it was easy then we'd all be doing it and it wouldn’t need writing about.