Yang: We Must Continuously Improve … Or, Must We?

Los Alamos

We Must Continuously Improve _________ … or, must we?

How can we not want to improve ourselves all the time? How can organizations not expect continuous improvement on productivity? How can we not demand perfect safety and security? Indeed, how can anyone with a functioning brain reject “improvement?”

Well…it all depends on the types of improvement. If it’s about improving a mind, it likely concerns the breadth of topics or proficiency in a certain field; if it’s about “improving” (i.e. decreasing) a waist size, there’d better be a floor number below which it’d be silly as a goal. But improving toward perfection? We can drive ourselves insane.

The idea of “continuous improvement” sounds commonsensical, but we are often fooled by what appears to be common sense. Read Everything Is Obvious: How common sense fails us, by Duncan J. Watts, or my previous posts on the book, here, and here. In matters with imposed measurements, attempt to drive continuous improvement can only end in disappointment at the least, and destruction at the worst. 

I’ve written before about how the third law of thermodynamics dictates the impossibility of driving out defects except at the lowest temperature (here). And extracting the remaining imperfections on the way toward that goal has a concomitant high cost. Putting it differently, improving safety and security might be a worthy goal, but to improve from 90 percent success rate to 95 percent would cost more than from 85 percent to 90 percent, and exponentially upward from 95 percent.

For an organization to aim at the impossible goal of a perfect safety record is essentially a death knell; it would demoralize the workforce, choke off all innovation and creativity, and consume all available resources and then some. It’s particularly ironic – though I think a harsher adjective is totally justified – for science-oriented organizations to follow such anti-science practices.  

At a personal level, aiming for perfection is tantamount to starving our own creativity and sense of self. As many have written on “perfection,” the measurement is set up against others’ expectations; it’s typically about pleasing others. That inevitably makes a person insecure since he always looks for others’ approval, needs to feel superior, and consequently has to demean people around him.

For people searching for perfection, measurement is important, be it a test score, rankings of the schools they attend, the value of their possessions, or the number of compliments they get per week…and so on, anything that can be quantified, they want more. And the cost goes up in acquiring all these symbols. 

A common saying is: Numbers don’t lie. Again, it depends. I think numbers carry different weights in different fields or for different matters. In the world of physical sciences, numbers are the foundation for precision, but in the world of social science, numbers often are subject to “socially constructed reality.” Quantifiable “continuous improvement” makes me nervous; it can escalate into something ridiculous. 

I often wonder about what may happen to many of the Olympics events in 10 to 20 years. I mean, can one set a world record of 100-meter track in 6 seconds? Or, throwing the javelin150 meters? Or, swimming the 100 meter butterfly in under 40 seconds? Yes, I Googled the world records, and my proposed numbers are insane. So, what should the athletes aim for? What should their coaches tell them?

I suspect this type of continuous “improvement,” more like perpetual escalation or paying the exponentially increasing cost to approach the inevitable asymptote, is one of the reasons we “wear our exhaustion as a status symbol,” an article to which I alluded in passing in the previous post. For some students, no sooner do they score perfectly on SAT, their parents would come up with other measurable goals. That last increment in the march toward perfection – if it exists – is going to exact a heavy toll.

For the majority of people who don’t race in the Olympics, there is the race for grant monies, for promotions, for market shares, for advertising accounts…the more the merrier. When someone finishes a proposal, her immediate reaction is, “What’s next on the list?” Not sharing a moment of relief with colleagues, or giving one’s direct report a nice pat on the back and the right to chill for 15 minutes, or making up some lost fun time with family members. If you catch yourself saying, “What’s next on the list?” just stop. Just STOP! Yet, many people are so accustomed to working ten plus hours a day, six-seven days a week, that if they are forced to stop, they literally wouldn’t know what to do next. They need that list. So, have a list of fun things to do before stopping.

Having said all this, I recognize that there are people whose passion for what they do runs so deep that they truly and genuinely enjoy themselves when they lose themselves in their “work,” which isn’t really “work” to them. In that state – what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously coined “the flow” – creativity blossoms. Immersion in flow might be considered a type of “continuous improvement” profoundly different from record keeping, documentation, or jumping through hoops after hoops. The improvement realized when a person is in the flow is about stretching her mind, both in depth and in breadth, not training for precision.

I don’t mean to demean Olympic activities nor improvement for physical prowess, but I use these as examples to demonstrate how we can mislead ourselves in “improving ourselves.” As I often express: the real world does not operate on either-or framework. In fact, many of us learn from our physical activities to stretch (pun intended) ourselves in mental domains; they are not mutually exclusive. However, we need to learn to distinguish between measuring our improvement for that miniscule uptick intended to impress others, versus simply improving without needing to measure.

Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.


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