It’s too easy to push back on improvement opportunities by claiming that you don’t have time. When you say that, you have instantly identified your first improvement opportunity.

One of my colleagues sent me this on Friday, and it’s such neat encapsulation of the situation that I often find in teams I’m working with that I couldn’t keep it to myself. If anyone can find the origin info, I’d very much like to give an attribution credit.

My first contact with leaders and managers about the idea of improvement is nearly always met with push back, based on them and their team being very busy, and not being able to spare the time or cost involved. Interestingly, they often start this argument before finding out what commitment I’m asking for.

Come Clean: You Didn’t Get It Right First Time

When we’re designing work, we (I hope) use all our experience and skill to come up with what we believe in good faith to be The Best Possible Way. But inevitably, we’re designing the future, and as a species, we’re really bad at forecasting what the future is like. It’s like walking through a fog: we can only clearly see what’s right in front of us.

There will be some assumptions we made that always were wrong. And life will have moved on, invalidating other assumptions. So let’s use the new knowledge we have to sense where we went wrong and redirect our course.

Management’s Job Is Improvement

If you have a skilled team working well together doing the thing that the team is being paid to do (let’s call it Software Development for the sake of argument), management’s primary role is to create a run-time environment for that time, which consists of two meta-tasks:

External Relationships
Ensuring that everything the team needs to do its work is provided, and there will be no distractions. In this bucket is everything to do with finance, logistics, inputs, co-ordination and so on.
How The Work Is Best Done
In some situations, this can mean using their own knowledge and experience to design work patterns, but more often and usually more effectively, it’s operating the work design process which takes input from those doing it. Rather than simply displaying iron control on repeating what we already know to have been wrong, use the role that has time away from the team’s core value production activities to think through How can we be better. That’s how it’s supposed to work, and why we pay for NVA time.

Improvements Are Like Avalanches

Done right, an improvement programme can start very, very small. A commitment of less than 5 minutes a week and very small improvements can start building momentum, and absolutely becomes self-funding almost immediately.

One leader I worked with expresses it like this:

My first improvement gave me back 5 minutes a week. I invested that time to do my second improvement cycle, which gave me back 10 minutes a week. I used that time to find and implement an improvement that gave my entire management team an hour a week each. The last improvement is where the real value was, but I needed the first ones to clear the time to get to it.

I’d add to that: you need your first improvements to develop the improvement skills to do the real value improvements effectively. Practise is important.

So it’s clear that you have a need for improvement, management should have the time to do it, and if they don’t, your first improvement is to clear that time for them, which will also give you greater ability to run the real improvements.

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